Combe Rail Chairman’s AGM report – September 2016

Combe Rail Chairman’s AGM report – September 2016

The Combe Rail group first met in March 2015, and our first priority was to apply for charity status. This was granted on 21st October 2015 and it confers both financial advantages, and legal standing. It also provides a guarantee of financial and organisational transparency to the membership. Combe Rail joined the Heritage Railway Association (HRA) in June 2015 and was granted full HRA Corporate status in July 2016.

In its first year, Combe Rail has achieved extensive publicity at minimal expense to the charity – although we would like to thank all the trustees and members who have given freely of their time and petrol! We had a presence at the Ilfracombe Model Railway Society exhibition in March, and also at Barnstaple station for the arrival of the Tarka Tourer railtour in April. We exhibited at the Exmoor Rail model railway show in Minehead in August, and vice-chair John Burch gave a presentation in Barnstaple Library at the invitation of the Barnstaple Haematology Support Group. Combe Rail has been featured twice this year in both the North Devon Herald and North Devon Gazette, and has just been approached for a feature by RAIL magazine. Paid membership currently stands at 106, including one Life Member.

Our members’ newsletter Devon Belle is published quarterly in digital format. Every issue contains articles submitted by Combe Rail members, and we would like to thank those who have submitted material, and to encourage all members to consider doing so. Devon Belle will be annually indexed, creating an ever-growing and unparallelled reference source for the Ilfracombe-Barnstaple line.

Combe Rail’s charitable purpose, or “object” is “to preserve and protect the heritage of the Ifracombe to Barnstaple railway.” We have spent much of our first year consulting with North Devon Council, with the Biosphere Service and North Devon AONB, and with railway industry, local planning and heritage experts, in order to gauge what might still be possible. After all, the line closed 46 years ago, and the first attempt to preserve it failed in 1975. Since then, the track has been lifted, and Ilfracombe station was demolished and the site was redeveloped. All the remaining stations have been much altered, with the trackbed built upon, the formation from Braunton to Willingcott is in multiple private ownership, and finally, the bridge over the River Taw was lost in 1976. There doesn’t seem much left to protect or preserve – or is there?

Fortunately, two significant sections of the line were effectively preserved (or at least protected) when they were redeveloped as cycle paths: Ilfracombe to Willingcott as part of National Cycle Route 27 and Braunton to Barnstaple as part of the Tarka Trail. Having looked at all the viable options for these two sections, we have come up with two different solutions – a Railway Heritage Trail and an operational Community Railway.

The Railway Heritage Trail will be installed between Ilfracombe and Willingcott. This will take the form of Video Posts, with a QR code which links to a video slideshow of the historic railway at each location. Surviving railway infrastructure along the trail will also be restored, including signals, signage and a demonstration track panel. We are also currently in discussions with Pall Europe about restoring the former pedestrian approach to Ilfracombe Station.

When we looked into the possibility of a heritage line between Braunton and Barnstaple, the obstacles seemed insurmountable. The trackbed along the Taw estuary has been encroached upon by concrete flood defences – which leaves insufficient width for a railway alongside the Tarka Trail cycle path. Less visible – but an even greater obstacle – there is a transatlantic data cable buried in the railway formation all the way from Velator to Pottington. We even discovered that another heritage proposal, called The Tawbank Railway was rejected by North Devon Council in 2006 precisely because of the presence of this data cable.

However, what would be impossible for a volunteer-run heritage railway, wouldn’t be impossible for a forward-looking, council-backed community light railway. It appers that both the flood defences and the data cable will be due for renewal in the next 10-15 years, at which point, with council support, such a railway could be accommodated.

This would be a light railway, like a tramway, operating ultra-lightweight battery electric vehicles. These require no overhead wires and run very quietly, and could therefore share the formation without impacting adversely on the existing and popular cycle path. It would be a community railway because it would provide a year-round service, taking Braunton commuters, students and shoppers to a tramstop style terminus in The Strand in the heart of Barnstaple. It could also serve a much wider catchment area with a Barnstaple park-and-ride station near the A39/A361 junction. Eventually, the railway could cross Barnstaple Long Bridge and reconnect with the national rail network. We have presented our draft proposal to North Devon Council, and we are urging them in the first instance to protect the entire former railway route against any adverse development. We will shortly be making presentations to all the parish councils along the route.

So, an impressive first year for Combe Rail, with exciting plans for the future.I would like to thank our first Trustees – Secretary, Yvonne Hin and Treasurer, Dan Roche for all their work this year. I would also like to thank our two new Trustees – John Burch, for his outreach work in taking our project to a wider audience – and David Luggar, sadly not able to attend today’s AGM, who has brought our project to the attention of North Devon Council. Finally, I would like to thank all the members of Combe Rail for your enthusiasm and support. We share your affection and enthusiasm for this line. Together we can celebrate the railway’s history – – but we can also start writing the next chapter.

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