Many rail lines around Europe skirt expanses of water: those along the banks of the Rhine in Germany, by Lac Leman through Lausanne and Montreux, and along the water park that is the upper Douro Valley are all well-known. But these are not open, tidal seas. The Great Western main line beyond Exeter, which hugs the sea wall as it passes through Dawlish, shows what happens when you go there.
Idyllic: in Summer, and at low tide, new build steam loco Tornado leads a Torbay Express charter along the coast at Dawlish
And like other parts of the UK’s transport network, the potential for damage is only brought to public attention when that open, tidal sea does sufficient damage to wake up the media. They in turn ask why-oh-why someone is not doing something about a problem that has been there since the line opened in the 1840s. The answer is that, right now, there is no alternative route.
So when the area is hit by a succession of storms, the potential for the western part of Devon, and all of Cornwall, to be cut off from the rest of the rail network is very real. Normally, the waves only wash out the ballast on which the tracks rest. This is then replaced and disruption kept to a couple of days or so. The recent extreme weather has been far worse. So why do we depend on this line?
Oh SHIT ((c) Getty)
The answer is that choices were made many years ago which removed any alternative. There had been a line from Exeter to Newton Abbot which ran inland, avoiding the problems that affect the line via Dawlish. It was closed in the 1960s, paradoxically being affected by flooding. During the same decade, the only other alternative line was also closed and partially dismantled.
This had run from Exeter via Okehampton and Tavistock, ultimately approaching Plymouth from the west. The part from Bere Alston through Tavistock to Meldon Quarry (near Okehampton) has been partially built over. At the time, BR was losing considerable sums of money and any route seen as duplicating another was fair game for closure. That left the route which has now been severed.
The alternatives that were closed long ago. "Just reopening" is not a trivial matter ((c) Mail Online)
As with many other decisions being forced on Government following the recent storms, it will be down to whether it is worth the candle: the cost of a new route avoiding the sea wall through Dawlish must be balanced with the potential benefit. There will be other schemes competing for attention. What will happen is that the can will be kicked a little further down the road.
The masonry wall, and the in-fill behind it, were clearly unable to cope with the force of the waves. Steel piling is the most likely solution: it looks unsightly, but can be faced with stone. Yes, the route through Dawlish will continue to carry rail traffic to the south west. That will emerge as the best value solution for the immediate future, along perhaps with slab track to stop the washing out of ballast.
It may not be the solution for all time: that’s for a future set of politicians to decide.