April 09, 2014

Dawlish disaster must be the spark for a new southwest railway

Written by 

THE nature of IRJ means that we report on railway-related news and events from a global perspective, rarely looking at anything too close to home. Some of you may not be aware that IRJ's editorial office is located in Falmouth, Cornwall, in the far southwest of England. So we, like businesses and people throughout the region, were gravely affected by the recent failure of the main line at Dawlish, between Plymouth and Exeter.

Storms that battered the region's coastline on February 4 and 5 and again on February 14 and 15 caused a 100m section of sea wall to collapse, taking the railway with it, and numerous landslides across a 6km section of Brunel's coastal line.

While many people in this area jest at the idea of being cut off from the rest of the country, the failure highlighted the vulnerability of the southwest's railway infrastructure, which has suffered from decades of under investment, and the region's economy if no direct services to and from the rest of the country are on offer. Some estimated the cost at around £20m a day, although this is extremely difficult to quantify.

Last week's event to mark the reopening of the line was effectively a celebration of the work of the "orange army," infrastructure manager Network Rail's (NR) crew of track workers who were drafted in to repair the line in a £35m project.

So often the disdain of railway passengers forced onto buses by weekend line closures, the track workers received a hero's welcome for the work they did to reopen the line 56 days after it closed. In a real PR coup for NR, TV and radio reports praised their work throughout the day; they were even credited by one radio presenter for "bringing back the Olympic spirit of the summer of 2012" and recommended to carry out other difficult projects across the country.

The praise was certainly not without merit. These men and women worked day and night to carry out the work, braving continuing atrocious weather conditions and countering the land slips. This briefly threatened to delay the reopening beyond the target date of April 4, seen as essential for the southwest's tourist industry ahead of the Easter holiday period. But using a variety of techniques, (which we will look at in detail in the May issue of IRJ) the line reopened on time, to the delight of local residents who turned out in their droves to commemorate the first few trains to pass through the revitalised Dawlish station.

Politicians, not ones to miss a photo opportunity, were also there to mark the reopening, including Prime Minister Mr David Cameron, who visited Dawlish in the immediate aftermath of the storms. He inevitably praised the orange army, but also crucially said that a review was underway to assess alternatives to the coastal route.

DawlishIn our office we have long discussed the need for an alternative railway route through Devon to avoid the coastal line. The failure at Dawlish is not an isolated incident. Landslides along the coastal section coupled with flooding north of Exeter are regular occurrences, and have resulted in prolonged closures in recent winters, while climate change may mean that the Dawlish failure may not be such a freak event in the future. NR already spends millions to keep the line operational, but this may rise massively if emergency repairs become the norm with the risk of the line closing for good if the damage is too severe.

Five alternative routes are under consideration, with NR and the Department for Transport working together with a local taskforce to assess the most suitable option with the aim of presenting a draft plan to secretary of state for transport, Mr Patrick McLoughlin, by the end of June. A full study will then be presented to the government in the autumn.

As these studies progress, it is essential that the chosen option provides a sustainable and long-term alternative, that as well as remaining steadfast during winter storms, reduces journey times to and from London and the southwest. Line speeds are as low as 64km/h on some sections of the Plymouth - Exeter line, which severely impacts journey times, with the fastest Plymouth - London service taking 3h 13min, and Penzance - London 4h 57min. However, most trains take much longer. This is a chance to finally right what was a cheaper option when the line was first built. Indeed the reason that Devon and Cornwall got a railway at all was due to pressure from Plymouth-based businesses who demanded an extension of the main line from Exeter at a time when the Great Western railway was reluctant to invest.

As Cameron pointed out, the southwest economy, while heavily reliant on tourism, also includes a great deal of creative, industrial and manufacturing industries. These, and IRJ is included among them, are at a great disadvantage without reliable and fast railway links to London and other locations throughout Britain. For example the absence of the overnight sleeper service to and from London caused a great deal of difficulty to us during the Dawlish outage, as I am sure it did to many other southwest business people who use it regularly.

As the media hype and attention surrounding Dawlish dies down, it is essential that the southwest's case continues to be made so that the investment that is so desperately required is provided by central government. NR's chief executive Mr Mark Carne's assertion to me that funding would not come from the £38bn allocated in its latest five-year funding period, which commenced last week, indicates that for anything to happen in the next five years it will have to come from central government. It is imperative then that pressure is placed on Cameron and the like to make good of their word to support the southwest economy by investing in its railway. We simply cannot afford another Dawlish disaster.

Kevin Smith

Kevin Smith joined IRJ in 2009 as features editor and since then has travelled the world reporting on developments in the world's railways. Before joining IRJ, Kevin worked for several local newspapers in the United States and as a freelance technical writer for a university engineering magazine. Kevin graduated with a first class honours degree in American Studies from Lancaster University, Britain, in 2006, and with a Master's degree in American Studies from Purdue University, United States, in 2008.