Crossing the Exe at Cowley Bridge
|Termini||Exeter St Davids|
|Operator(s)||Great Western Railway|
|Rolling stock||Class 143 or 150 DMUs|
|Line length||39 mi (62.76 km)|
|Track gauge||1,435 mm (4 ft 8 1⁄2 in) standard gauge|
|Old gauge||7 ft 1⁄4 in (2,140 mm) Brunel gauge|
The Tarka Line, also known as the North Devon Line, is a local railway line in Devon, England, linking the city of Exeter with the town of Barnstaple via a number of local villages. Services on the Tarka Line are operated by the Great Western Railway, and most southbound services continue beyond Exeter on the Avocet Line to Exmouth and the Riviera Line to Paignton. In the summer, the Dartmoor Railway runs alongside the Tarka Line between Exeter and Yeoford, and the railway broadly follows the route of the A377 road and the River Taw.
The first train services between Barnstaple and Exeter were operated in 1854 by the North Devon Railway (NDR), though the track south of Crediton was owned by the distinct Exeter and Crediton Railway (E&CR), which had the permission of the Bristol and Exeter Railway to connect to its station at Exeter St David's. The NDR was taken over by the London and South Western Railway (LSWR) in 1865, and while the E&CR remained nominally independent, the majority of its shares were owned by the LSWR and the B&ER. The section south of Crediton became part of the LSWR in 1876.
Following the passage of the Railways Act 1921, the LSWR was merged into the Southern Railway, and twenty years later the line became part of the Western Region of British Rail. When British Rail was privatised the line was taken over by Wessex Trains, who gave it the name Tarka Line after the eponymous otter in Henry Williamson's book Tarka the Otter and introduced the Class 150 Sprinters and Class 143 Pacers that run today. The line was transferred to First Great Western in 2006, who rebranded as the Great Western Railway in 2015.
The first proposals relating to what would become the Tarka Line originated in the 1820s, when it was proposed that a railway line might be built from Crediton to the docks at Exeter Quayside. Authority was obtained to build this line by an Act of 1831, but the railway was never started and the powers lapsed. It would take the opening of the Bristol and Exeter Railway (B&ER) and the South Devon Railway (SDR) to focus the minds of business interests in Crediton. In 1844, a proposal was put forward for a new line to connect Crediton to the B&ER, to be built and managed by a new Exeter and Crediton Railway Company (E&CR). 
Meanwhile, a proposal from business interests in Barnstaple was put forward to link their town to the B&ER at Exeter. This proposal was rejected by the Railway Commission (led by the Lord Dalhousie), as they wished to defer the decision on linking Barnstaple to the national railway network in order to appraise an alternative proposal by the B&ER that would run between Barnstaple and Tiverton. Surprisingly, however, they accepted the E&CR's proposal, and granted them authority by an Act of 1845. The new company had capital of £70,000 (around £8.5 million in modern money), and made arrangements with the B&ER for the latter's trains to run beyond Exeter and along their track to Crediton.
Parts of the line are single track, meaning that trains travelling in opposite directions must sometimes wait for each other. Collisions are prevented on these sections by requiring the train crew to be in possession of a physical token released from an electrically operated apparatus at a station under a system known as no signaller token remote working. The full journey from Barnstaple to Exeter takes just over 1 hour, much the same as the journey time in a car.
Beyond Barnstaple, the railway used to continue to Ilfracombe or Instow and Bideford. Part of the latter route is preserved as the Bideford & Instow Railway, while sections of both routes have been reopened as cycleways (rail trails) called the Tarka Trail.
Passenger services on the line are operated by Great Western Railway using Class 143 and Class 150 diesel multiple units. During the summer months a Sunday-only service operates (on behalf of Devon County Council) between Exeter Central and Okehampton.
The majority of passengers travel to or from Barnstaple – about three times the number of all the other stations north of Exeter. Portsmouth Arms is the quietest station in Devon. Some of the smaller stations have seen a decline in passenger numbers during the last few years, although there have been significant increases at Umberleigh, Eggesford, and Copplestone and on the line overall. Comparing the year from April 2009 to that which started in April 2002, passenger numbers at Barnstaple have increased by 71%.
|Newton St Cyres||1,147||702||780||889||1,662||1,868||1,784||2,774||3,212||2,252||2,760||2,510||2,082||2,940||2,468|
|The annual passenger usage is based on sales of tickets in stated financial years from Office of Rail Regulation statistics. The statistics are for passengers arriving and departing from each station and cover twelve month periods that start in April. Please note that methodology may vary year on year. Note also that Barking and Blackhorse Road are affected by usage of the ticket gates for the underground and that Gospel Oak connects to the North London Line section of the London Overground and is similarly affected.|
Stations marked with ‡ only operate on summer
Sundays only and are on the Dartmoor Railway.
Mileage from Exeter St Davids railway station
Tarka Line is named after the otter in Henry Williamson's book Tarka the Otter which is set in the area. It is one of the railway lines supported by the Devon and Cornwall Rail Partnership, an organisation formed in 1991 to promote railway services in the area. The line is promoted by many means such as regular timetable and scenic line guides, as well as leaflets highlighting leisure opportunities such as walking or visiting country pubs.
The Tarka Line rail ale trail was launched in 2002, the first of several such schemes which encourages rail travellers to visit pubs near the line. The trail originally covered 16 pubs, and the number has risen and fallen over the years, but in 2016 is 18 pubs. There are five pubs each in Exeter and four in Barnstaple, with one each at Newton St Cyres, Crediton, Yeoford, Copplestone, Morchard Road, Lapford, Eggesford, Portsmouth Arms, and Umberleigh. 5, 10 or 18 stamps collected in the Rail Ale Trail leaflet entitle the participant to claim special Tarka Line Rail Trail souvenir merchandise.
Wessex Trains covered Class 150 2-car DMU number 150241 in coloured pictures promoting the line and named The Tarka Belle. It is still in service with Great Western Railway (Formerly First Great Western) but is no longer in that livery.
The line was designated by the Department for Transport as a community rail line in September 2006. This aims to increase revenue and reduce costs. Among possible options are increasing the car parking at stations, looking at ways to increase the train frequency, and assisting the Dartmoor Railway to operate a connecting service between Yeoford and Okehampton.
- Nicholas, John (20 July 1992). The North Devon Line: Exeter to Barnstaple Railway from Inception to the Present Day. O.P.C. Railprint. ISBN 978-0860934615.
- Gordon D. Webster (15 November 2016). Signal Boxes and Semaphores: The Decline. Amberley Publishing. p. 88. ISBN 978-1-4456-5618-2.
- "Station Usage". Rail Statistics. Office of Rail Regulation. Retrieved 13 March 2009.
- Falconer, Kieran (6 September 2009). "All abroad the real ale train". Express. Retrieved 18 July 2016.
- Hancock, Nick (16 September 2009). "Rail ale drinkers are back on right track". Express and Echo. Retrieved 18 July 2016.[permanent dead link]
- "Tarka Line Rail Ale Trail". Great Scenic Railways. Retrieved 18 July 2016.
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