The Salisbury-Exeter line was a partial Beeching closure. The old express service from Waterloo to Exeter and Plymouth was abandoned and the Salisbury-Exeter section of the line was reduced over most of its length to single track, with the expectation that full closure would follow. However, the local communities fought for the line’s survival and passenger numbers soon started growing again. Templecombe station was re-opened in 1983 by popular demand, followed by an additional passing loop near Tisbury (unfortunately not in the station as the south platform had already been sold). After a long campaign by local councils an hourly service between Waterloo and Exeter was reinstated in 2009. This was made possible by building a “dynamic loop” at Axminster, at a cost of £20m, of sufficient length that allowed trains to pass with ease, and an additional platform.
The continued growth of rail usage has led to an urgent need to improve services further and SERUG was formed in 2016 to lobby for these improvements.
The increase in house building in all towns along the line (25,000 new houses are planned in Yeovil, West and North Dorset alone!) will result in further capacity issues and there is little opportunity to increase services without substantial infrastructure improvements. Every SERUG station has seen substantial passenger growth over the past decade. At peak times, trains are often full and standing all the way from Waterloo to Yeovil (a journey of well over 2 hours). The average speed of even the fastest train between Waterloo and Yeovil is just 53mph! There are few places of similar population and distance from London with such slow services.
The western part of the line has seen increased usage by commuters between Axminster and Exeter. The section from Yeovil to Exeter is also used as a diversionary route when the Great Western Line west of Taunton is closed. Capacity west of Yeovil is restricted to just one train per hour – which is insufficient to cope for adequate services when diversions are in operation.
We wish to work with train operators and other rail-focused organisations to promote the line and its journey opportunities, but we remain firmly independent. We receive no funding from any rail operator, train builder, Network Rail or other commercial organisation with a focus on railway operation. This is vital as our Proposals are long term.
Our current objectives are:
More (and faster) trains between Waterloo and Yeovil Junction: Capacity for two trains per hour throughout the day. This can be achieved with a short section of additional double track east of Tisbury. The current fastest time from London to Yeovil is 2hr13min – the target should be 2 hours with existing stock.
Longer Trains: Many of the services west of Salisbury are 3 cars only, resulting in overcrowding and unpleasant travelling conditions. We are lobbying for all trains to be at least 5 cars, especially in the summer timetable.
The ability to join and split trains at Yeovil Junction. Known as “permissive working” this would enable a wider range of journey opportunities, including through services to Weymouth, Westbury, Bath and Bristol.
Replacement of the current class 158 and 159 diesel units. Reliability of these 30-year-old units is now very poor despite recent engine overhauls. Their maximum speed of only 90mph makes them the slowest main line trains on the UK network. New trains need to be longer than the current 2 or 3 cars. We also wish to see passenger use of the front doors on the leading carriage.
Later evening trains from Waterloo to SERUG stations: The last through train from Waterloo to stations west of Yeovil leaves at 20.20 and includes an 18-minute wait (for no apparent reason) at Salisbury.
Improved Capacity and Diversionary Resilience between Yeovil and Exeter: A four mile loop near Whimple, plus another loop near Crewkerne, would improve timetable resilience and allow development of the long-awaited Devon Metro services (Exeter to Honiton/Axminster) as well as creating more capacity to allow diversions of GWR services, when the line between Exeter and Taunton is closed.
How can the operator fit more trains into the timetable?
Ideally, we need double track all the way from Salisbury to Exeter, however SERUG recognise that full reinstatement of double track is unlikely in the short term. Solving the immediate capacity issue is relatively simple; reinstating double track for about four miles east of Tisbury would allow a half hourly Waterloo/Yeovil Junction service. Extending this double track section to Tisbury station, where there is prospect of recovering ownership the south platform, would also make sense. Similarly additional loops near Whimple and Crewkerne would create the necessary capacity at the western end of the line.