The Dawlish Question – Part 2
The main Network Rail route to the South West of England, ending at Penzance in Cornwall, is the only contiguous route through that part of the country.
At one time, other routes, both main and branch, existed, but most of those routes were closed and dismantled in the period 1964-1972 as a result of the rationalization of the UK rail network that implemented the Beeching Report.
The route runs through the countryside of Somerset and Devon down through Exeter. It then runs along the estuary of the River Exe before reaching the English Channel coast near Dawlish. At that point the line runs along the base of the cliffs, carried on a concrete bed behind a sea wall built in the 19th Century. The coastal strata and cliffs behind the sea fortifications and the railway line are also vulnerable to erosion.
The vulnerability of this part of the rail route has been known and understood for many decades. The coastal wall and other fortifications are over 100 years old, not built using modern materials and techniques, and like all infrastructure, they have a finite life. There has always been a fear that The Big One – a destructive storm, would damage or destroy the coastal part of this important rail route as it runs along the sea at Dawlish.
The fear was converted to reality on 5th February 2014, when a massive storm hit the UK, and enormous seas and winds hammered the sea wall East of Dawlish. A significant section of the sea wall was breached by the sea, carried out to sea, and the waves eroded out the strata and the road behind the rail line. When the storm subsided, a 100 yard long stretch of rail line was hanging in the air…literally, with all of the base gone. Elsewhere either side of the breach, ballast was washed away from the track, and massive amounts of wood, damage debris from the sea wall and other flotsam were thrown onto the rail tracks and surrounds.
The damage took nearly 2 months to repair, with Network Rail crews working close to 24×7. In the meantime most of Devon and the whole of Cornwall had no rail connection to the rest of the UK.
Services on the route were finally restored on 4th April 2014.
At this time we need to examine some history. In the 1800s, railway companies competed to reach many major cities in the UK, to bring the iron horse, with its promise of fast and easy travel. In the West Country, the Great Wester Railway and the London and South Western competed to reach the city of Plymouth. The GWR and the South Devon Railway company went South and along the coast, building the current route via Dawlish. The LSWR decided to build a route around the North side of Dartmoor, from Exeter through Crediton, Okehampton and Tavistock down the Tamar Valley to Plymouth, reaching Plymouth in 1876, some time after their rivals.
That northern route, steeply graded and curved, was a main route through until the 1960s. At that point, the Beeching Report was published. One of the principles of Beeching was to eliminate route duplication. The LSWR route via Okehampton to Plymouth was squarely in the crosshairs of the Beeching report. It was well-maintained but expensive to operate, had been transferred to the Western Region from the Southern Region, and the Western Region regarded it as superfluous to requirements, and there were question marks about the health of Meldon Viaduct, which carried the line over the West Oakment valley West of Okehampton. The route ran through rural villages with limited passenger traffic, so it was losing money.
So, the Beeching axe swung on this route. The section between Okehampton and Bere Alston was closed in 1968, and dismantled in late 1969. In 1972, the remaining section between Okeampton and Crediton was closed to passengers and the line singled, although the line was retained for transporting railway ballast from a quarry at Meldon. At the same time, the line from Bere Alston to Plymouth down the Tamar Valley was singled also.
So, via the Beeching Report, one alternative backup route for the route via Dawlish had been eliminated. At more or less the same time, another alternative route via the Teign Valley had been closed as part of the Beeching cuts. This line, originally built by the GWR, was never a main line. It was a branch line , ran through countryside that was vulnerable to flooding, and had sharp curves and a low speed limit.
So, when the Dawlish route was severed in 2014, it took…ooh, all of 24 hours before people began asking the obvious questions (1) why was there no alternative route into Devon and Cornwall, since everybody knew that sooner or later a storm would close the Dawlish section of the line, (2) was it not time to consider adding an alternative route?
The resulting furore from people in Devon and Cornwall, and their elected representatives, led to a Route Resiliency Study, which discussed (among other options that included spending more money on sea fortifications, and building a new alternative route inland) re-instating the 19 miles of missing line between Meldon Quarry and Bere Alston, in order to create an alternative route.
Although everybody was in agreement that this would be a Jolly Good Idea, the Route Resiliency Study was never a proposal. It was simply a collection of possible alternatives thrown together with not much detail work or estimation. Part of the reason being that nobody could agree on the likely costs for most of the options, including the reinstatement of the route via Okehampton.
The low-end estimates for this option (probably way too optimistic) were of the order of £150m. The top end “Rolls Royce” estimate for a high-speed route with double track were up near the £875m mark. As a general rule, a medium-speed railway line costs around £10m a mile to create, even without factoring in special projects like large bridges and new earthworks. The likely cost for a long single line with high-speed passing loops would be around £600m+. In other words, not cheap.
One reason is that the cost of re-instating the route to Plymouth via Okehampton is a lot more than simply re-instating the 19 miles of track. The entire route from end to end will require upgrading, since the disconnected ends have been treated as branch and freight lines for 40+ years, and the track infrastructure is worn out. This is therefore not a simple “lay some track in the middle again and start the service” project. Issues are as follows:
1. Meldon Viaduct, used by the original route, is now a listed monument and cycle trail, and is almost certainly not safe for use by modern trains. (The viaduct was nearing the end of its life when the route was closed in 1968, and was under single-line use with a speed restriction). So, a new bridge will be needed across the West Oakment valley.
2. The line is blocked in Tavistock by the city council offices.
3. 2 stations (Bridestowe and Brentor) are now in private ownership, which may require the sensitive use of eminent domain.
4. The route from Meldon down to Coleford Junction near Crediton is currently owned by a subsidiary of Iowa Pacific. This section will probably need to be bought back from that company
5. The track from Meldon through Okehampton to Crediton will require renewal, since it has not been properly maintained for some years, since Meldon Quarry was closed in 2011. (it currently has a speed limit of between 30 and 55 mph)
6. Okehampton needs a new station, since the current station is at the wrong end of the expanding town and has no car parking.
7. The route down from Bere Alston to Plymouth will also require upgrading since it is used only by stopping local trains.
This is not the work of a moment. However, if the government had started work on this project after the initial big storm in 2014, they would probably already be close to having an alternative operational route.
And, in true “bright shiny object” fashion, the government’s top spending priorities are the HS2 link, which is going to consume up to $50bn of money in the next 19 years. That is the Big Glamour Project.
An additional complicating factor is that the rail network has been staggering from crisis to crisis for 15 years, with RailTrack (the original infrastructure corporation) essentially going bankrupt and having to be bailed out by the government. The current two-part operating model for railways in the UK; an infrastructure company to run track, signaling etc. and stations, and Train Operating Companies (TOCs) to run the trains on a franchise basis, has a number of issues. Some franchisees want out of their current contracts, and the current move by the UK to leave the EU may cause more TOC franchisees to not renew their contracts. In a worst case scenario, the government may have to effectively re-nationalize the network. In the meantime, there is no obvious pile of money available for projects to re-instate alternative routes.
So, fast forward to March 9th 2018. Once again, a powerful storm showed up in the West Country, pounding the Devon coast. And once again, the line near Dawlish was closed. This time, it was not due to obvious storm destruction. Ballast was washed away, and line communications damaged. This required the line to be closed for several days of inspections and checks before it could safely be re-opened.
However, the lack of an alternative route is starting to remind me of the old definition of madness:
i..e. doing the same thing over and over again but still expecting the same result.
We are heading into an era of atmospheric instability as the Earth warms. We can expect more serious storms, not less. Sooner or later another storm will damage or destroy another section of sea wall and the railway line, and the line will be out of action for months. 100 yards of route were destroyed in 2014, and that took 2 months of flat-out work to repair. If half a mile of track is destroyed next time, the line could be shut for a year or more. This will lead to even more light heat and sound as millions of people West of Dawlish once again have no rail link to the rest of the UK The political consequences will be significant. As in, litigation, as the TOCs using the infrastructure sue the infrastructure companies, and the government has to fend off the question “why did you not do anything about an alternative route?”
Oh, and by the way, just to make matters worse, the UK is planning to leave the EU, so any route improvements or duplications will not be getting any EU grants.
Right now, if another big storm shows up next Winter, there will be no alternative and Devon and Cornwall will be cut off once again.
This is an avoidable cluster.