Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Dawlish and the case for a new rail route to Plymouth

Photograph by Martin Bodman
The loss of the sea wall at Dawlish, and with the Great Western mainline to Plymouth and Cornwall, should not come as a surprise.

It has long been known that this stretch of track is vulnerable to storms and that climate change will only make the situation worse.

As a result there has been interest in the idea of reopening the old London & South Western route from Exeter to Plymouth via Okehampton and Tavistock. Stretches of the line is still in use at either end.

In 2010 Andrew George, the Liberal Democrat MP for St Ives in Cornwall, said:
"If the assessment is the problems on the line [through Dawlish] are overwhelming then it would be sensible to plan for the future," he said. 
"When you contrast the amount of money – the billions – spent on major improvements to services in the north to south, it would be quite wrong to leave Plymouth and Cornwall cut off if that were to happen in the next century."
The same newspaper report quotes a Network Rail spokesman as saying that any thoughts of a re-routing of trains around Dawlish were "wishful thinking". Perhaps the idea does not seem so foolish today.

Still, the spokesman was on the ball in one respect:
Funding to improve the line through the Somerset Levels, which is also prone to flooding, was a more attractive option, he said.
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Malin said...

I think it's a good idea. But I see a couple of problems.

1) The remaining track from the suggested route is single track and it won't be easy to change to double track (like current route via south coast). Things like the Meldon viaduct would have to be rebuilt amongst the other problems associating with widening the track (cuttings through granite and all).

2) Devon economy is currently set up based around the fact that people from the south can easily use trains to travel to plymouth and exeter for work. I work in Exeter and many of my colleagues come up from that direction. Close the line and suddenly that's a lot of people who will be driving on a road which can't really handle the extra traffic. I wouldn't want to see the idea ago ahead without massive consultation about the effect in this area.

On the plus side currently Crediton could really do with a proper alternative to the road, which regularly has problems, and Okehampton is currently expanding and the land has already been set aside for a new station.

crewgwyntherailwayman said...

Reopening the LSWR is the wrong answer to the right question.

New build from SW Exeter to Newton Abbot.

But what you do for Dawlish & Teignmouth is then a problem.

Tim Hall said...

The former LSWR route from Exeter to Plymouth was originally double track throughout. The surviving bits at the end were singled after the closure of the central section between Meldon and Bere Alston. The formation is still wide enough for double track.

Reinstatement isn't a long-term replacement for the GW coast route, but a medium-term stopgap as diversionary route for whenever the coast route is unavailable.

An all-new Exeter to Newton Abbot line is the longer-term solution, keeping the NA-Teighmouth section of the old route as a branch to serve Teignmouth.

parson and clerk said...

Re-open the old Teigh Valley line with improved engineering along the river, Tim ?

I bet "they" are wishing they'd maintained it now !

Adrian Sanders said...

Three big issues face the South West and the future of its rail links to the rest of the country.

The first big issue is resilience east of Exeter. What we do west of the city is irrelevant if we cannot get beyond Taunton in the north and Crewkerne in the east.

Being cut off at Exeter for the second year running presents an opportunity to focus on what is in all our best interests and that means reliable, faster and greater capacity services to and from the West Country.

The Government has already given the go-ahead for the electrification of the line between Paddington and Bristol and Reading and Newbury. Our task is to remind the powers that be that there is life south and west of these soon to be electrified lines and they ought to be extended in our direction.

Crucially we should argue for the electrification of the line from Newbury to Exeter with the potential of reducing journey times into Paddington by 45 minutes. Plymouth makes great noise about wanting journey times under 3 hours, electrification can bring Plymouth to London in under 2 and a half hours with no loss of services to other communities along the route.

We should also make the case for duelling the second line out of Exeter to Salisbury to increase capacity and run express services to Waterloo only stopping at main interchange stations rather than everywhere. This could create real competition for passengers and put pressure on our very high fares to and from London.

The second issue must be to protect life, property and the economies of the communities along the Dawlish line. The railway line protects the banks of the Exe and Teign estuaries as well as flood defences along a four mile stretch by the sea. Take away the rail line and you have over 12 miles of infrastructure the taxpayer will still have to maintain. The loss of tourism trade, while most acutely felt at Starcross, Dawlish Warren, Dawlish and Teignmouth, will also impact on reduced numbers of day trippers to Exeter and visitors to Torbay’s many attractions..

Keeping the Dawlish line as our main line is also crucial for the thousands of people who commute between Exeter, Newton Abbot and Torbay to and from the stations in between. The repercussions economically and environmentally do not appear to be fully understood by those who advocate a new in-land line, even one that retains Newton Abbot as a main station.

The third issue is to ensure the costs of improvements do not fall on rail users. The people who travel by train are not the only beneficiaries of rail transport and few other countries of the world expect those who use public transport to meet the full costs of its provision. Fares to and from the West Country are already the most expensive on the network and must not rise in the future on the back of new investment.

If we can get a long-term solution to protect the coast-line and allow a railway to continue to run on or alongside it we can turn our attention to a relief route for those few days this stretch of rail requires maintenance. Talking about such alternatives now is a massive distraction from the opportunities the current problems present to get a railway serving the West Country that is faster, more resilient, has greater capacity, and doesn’t disadvantage any community currently served.

Peter Davies said...

Adrian, you are right about priorities but I don't really get your third from last paragraph. Putting direct trains on a new route from Exeter to Newton Abbott would not only speed up commuting from Torbay to Exeter, It would increase the capacity for stopping trains on the coastal route.

Anonymous said...

Electrification is the real game changer for Plymouth and Penzance and must therefore surely be the long term objective. Key to achieving this a fast by-pass route Exminster to Newton Abbot. Why? Because 25kV and sea water don't mix!! Plus the time saving that a short cut would achieve. And...obviously reinstate Oke to Tavy not just because of sea wall disruptions but because of all the other engineering works that occur. Surely Meldon V etc could be reinstated to at least take the weight of the Salisbury line trains.

Anonymous said...

I can't help noticing you've taken an image from to illustrate this piece without acknowledging either the photographer or Geograph. See for details of the terms under which you can reuse images.

Jonathan Calder said...

Thanks, Anon.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the acknowledgement. A fine blog post, incidentally, with which I am in full agreement!