Well, that’s that. The flooding and storms this winter have got sufficiently severe to demolish the sea wall at Dawlish.

Dawlish 2 JPGA train rushes along the sea wall at Dawlish heading for Penzance.

What’s so significant about the Dawlish sea wall?

The Dawlish Sea Wall carries (or, to be entirely up-to-date, carried) what the media likes to describe as the main railway from London to Plymouth and Cornwall. The use of the word “main” is a helpful piece of cover for them in case there is in fact another railway linking the rest of the world with Plymouth that they haven’t noticed.

Is there?


Why was there a railway running along a sea wall?

Dawlish is one of several places in the country (other examples include Ferryside on the mainline to West Wales, Gatcombe on the Gloucester to South Wales line, Dovey to Penhelig on the Cambrian Coast line, most of the North Wales Coast line, the Maryport to Harrington section of the Cumbrian Coast line and the Skye Mainline from Attadale westwards) where the only flattish section of land for miles is the coastline. To avoid expensive engineering works and inconvenient gradients, the line’s engineer (one I. K. Brunel) therefore opted to follow the sweeping beach-head from Exeter to Newton Abbot.

The impact of running inland can be gathered by examining the rather steeper and twistier section of the South Devon Mainline between Newton Abbot, Totnes and Plymouth.

Ivybridge area 1 JPGA Newquay-bound train threads through South Devon between Totnes and Plymouth.

Have there ever been any schemes to divert away from the sea wall?

Yes. The main diversionary scheme arose in the 1930s at the hands of the Great Western Railway who, having been operating the sea wall with all its vagaries for 90 years, decided it was high time to build a replacement route. Parliamentary powers were obtained to construct an inland, more direct alignment between Exeter and Newton Abbot.

Due to the Second World War, these powers were not exercised at the time and thereafter were not considered a priority. Through the 1940s and 1950s the emphasis was on producing goods for export and one cannot export tunnels built in South Devon. In the 1960s a corrupt Tory transport minister followed by a Socialist government in hock to the road haulage unions ensured that no business case for diverting away from Dawlish would be considered. It would have been an excellent demonstration of the transport policies of the time for the main line to the Far West of England to be washed into the sea.

The parliamentary powers were finally allowed to lapse in the 1990s, presumably in part due to the kerfuffle of privatisation. Their revival has not of late been regarded as a priority.

Why keep the sea wall route?

The sea wall alignment serves various notable local communities of general and tourist importance, including Dawlish itself, nearby Teignmouth, Newton Abbot and Torbay.

One should also not underestimate the advertising benefit for the railway derived from its passengers on their way to the English Riviera being carried along the top of the beach, overlooking the gently-lapping sea. The BBC featured a short article which emphasised this point.

Parson's Tunnel 1 JPGAn IC125 formation on its way back to London threads its way between cliff and beach on the western section of the sea wall.

What can be done with the sea wall route to make it more reliable?

The simple solution is to expand the sea wall out onto the beach, with a higher and deeper wall protected by large piles of rubble. This would reduce Dawlish’s status as a seaside resort, but make the sea wall safer to walk on and the rail service less susceptible to disruption.

Is this sort of thing routine?

Disruption to the wall happens every few years, although this one appears to have created more anger than usual (although the Guardian has procured an article suggesting that it doesn’t matter, almost in a tone of setting up the paper to oppose the environmental inconvenience of building a duplicate line). Allowances for it are built into the signalling system, which allows trains to run either way on the inland track. Unfortunately the weather in the last two years has overtaken this facility. In November 2012 the cliff became saturated with water and collapsed across the inland track, whereupon it became apparent that trains could not run along the seaside track because the facility wasn’t duplicated there (the assumption being that it would be the line that was missing). This year both tracks have been completely washed out, which renders the ability to run wrong-way on one of them rather academic.

What other routes are available?

Three other lines provided routes across Devon. The most northerly was the North Devon and Cornwall Junction Railway between Torrington and Halwill in the very far North-West of the county, worked by the Southern Railway. Used in conjunction with other lines in the vicinity, it provided the central section of a slow and meandering route unsuited to heavy traffic that neatly avoided all the unreliable parts of the Devon rail network (including Exeter). Unfortunately most of these other lines – and, indeed, the North Devon and Cornwall Junction itself – have passed into the history books.

The other Great Western line linked Exeter and Newton Abbot via the Teign Valley. Largely single track (with occasional passing loops) this remarkably rural line was occasionally used for diversionary purposes and had the benefit of allowing trains diverted off the sea wall to serve everywhere except the cluster of coastal towns between Exeter and Newton Abbot. Unfortunately it was closed down due to a general lack of traffic brought on by its meandering nature and the fact that none of its regular trains actually ran the whole way from Exeter to Newton Abbot. Stubs at each end of this route, branching off just south of Exeter and just east of Newton Abbot, survive for freight use and present an image of a line that is easily resuscitated. It is, alas, blocked by a supermarket, the A38 and a collapsed tunnel.

The most notorious route is the London and South-Western Railway’s mainline from London and Exeter to Plymouth. Straighter than the GWR route, with easier gradients, it provided an effective form of competition and even when hobbled by obsolete traction and rolling stock combined with reduced maintenance – which procured it the nickname of “The Withered Arm” – it could still match GWR journey times. Unfortunately its key intermediate stations of Okehampton and Tavistock cannot match Newton Abbot for importance. In any event the central 20 miles of the route, between Okehampton and Bere Alston, were removed in 1968. Suggestions have been made down the years that one running line of the two was supposed to be retained as a diversion from the sea wall (throughout its long career one GWR train a day had run via Okehampton balanced by one L&SWR/ Southern Railway train running via Dawlish) but the demolition contractors removed both and nobody from officialdom raised much in the way of complaints. Restoration is inconvenienced by length, remoteness, the inflexibility of the surviving operational railway infrastructure and a set of houses built on the line at Tavistock.

Sampford Courtenay 1 JPGSampford Courtenay station on the semi-moribund mainline to Okehampton.

Withered Arm Map 1 (m) JPG A helpful plan of the various railways formerly found in the area with the Withered Arm emphasised.

Any plans to bring back any of these routes?

The London and South Western “Withered Arm” mainline has long been rumoured for re-opening (more or less ever since 5th May 1968, when the central section shut). There is an element for Central and North Devon rail campaigners wanting to strike while the iron is hot here and much lobbying can be expected over the next few weeks for the Withered Arm to be restored. This would provide a get-around for a known weak link in railway reliability, support rail growth in West Devon and Cornwall (which is well above average), boost the ailing economies of towns along the route, open up the area for wealth creation and demonstrate a huge vote of confidence in both the rail industry and key Government marginal seats. However, expect the Government to baulk at the currently estimated cost of around £100million.

To put this £100million into context, it could be obtained tomorrow by the expedient of cancelling the 3½ mile Hastings Bypass scheme at the small expense of keeping some journeys in a deprived part of the South-East the same as they are now.

The Withered Arm does have a number of downsides – it is readily blocked by snow on its high and wild Dartmoor-flanking alignment, its junction with the GWR at the Exeter end is susceptible to flooding (and indeed was washed out in November 2012) and trains using the route to avoid the sea wall would have to reverse at both Exeter and Plymouth. (A GWR branchline that ran alongside the L&SWR for some miles would have provided a way of avoiding the Plymouth reversal if this hadn’t been removed from Tavistock with a thoroughness bordering on hysteria.)

From a public relations perspective it does not offer the same iconic seaside views as the GWR route, although it is more consistently interesting.

However, scenery and a maximum of an additional half-hour on journey times are both essentially irrelevant when bearing in mind that this would be largely an emergency diversionary route providing a local service to Central Devon while the sea wall is open. Whatever the scenic delights and inconveniences, using it would be superior to the current set-up and provide a genuine alternative route the rest of the time.

A re-opening scheme for Bere Alston to Tavistock, at the western end of the route, is currently on the cards. The Plymouth to Bere Alston section of the mainline survived to provide a rail link from Plymouth to the Bere Peninsular, Calstock and Gunnislake – an area currently badly served by road. The re-opening will hobble Gunnislake’s current rail services, but nonetheless has a benefit:cost ration of £3 gained for every £1 spent (as opposed to High Speed 2’s £2 gained for £1 spent or the Waverley Route’s 90p gained for every £1 spent). As a result the Government is allocating no funding or support to the scheme and can be expected to follow much the same approach for the rest of the Withered Arm.

What’s the long-term strategy?

Hope the weather improves.

How long will this disruption go on?

Six weeks is the current official estimate.

Owing to the South Devon Railway from Exeter St David’s to Plymouth North Road being largely controlled by signals linked to the signal box in Exeter by cables that ran along the sea wall, it is likely that the disruption will in fact encompass pretty much the entire route rather than just the bits that have been washed into the sea. Shuttle services will run in Cornwall with the limited stock that is available and a vaguely normal service will be operated east of Exeter. Cornish branches will have services except when the tide comes in at Looe and the branchline vanishes under the canal that it replaced. Buses will link Plymouth to the outside world. The Night Riviera Sleeper will not run for the rest of this month; the unlucky Sleeper locomotive locked in Penzance, for anyone who wishes to see it, is No. 57602 Restormel Castle (coincidentally the same one as was locked in for two weeks by the disruption in late 2012).

The impact will be slightly reduced by the fact that for most of the affected Sundays no trains were planned to run between Exeter and Plymouth anyway; a similar sort of plan will likely be rolled out to the remaining 6 days of the week (with different timings, of course, but the same sort of strategic approach).

Truro 8 JPG57602 Restormel Castle draws into Truro station with a Down Sleeper train. This service will not operate until the sea wall has been restored and the loco will be locked into Cornwall unless it is decided to be necessary to remove it by road.

What will be the long-term impact on the railway and the local economy?

This is impossible to tell, but it is unlikely to be a beneficial exercise for anyone. Bear in mind that this is not just a passenger railway and it does carry limited freight traffic (occasionally of national importance to Plymouth and Devonport naval bases) which cannot readily be loaded onto replacement buses.

Figures are being banded around for the economic impact that range between £1million and £20million per day. For anyone wishing to work out the basis for this sort of figure, start with this writer having cancelled an imminent weekend in Cornwall due to problems getting there and multiply up from there for, say, 6 weeks out of action (6 weeks x 7 days per week x £20,000,000 per day is £840,000,000). Add onto this the economic cost caused by the general perception of an unreliable transport link and then compare this with the estimated cost of re-opening the Withered Arm at a mere eighth of that.

That is, of course, assuming that the wall is restored in six weeks. Longer durations are being banded around and a further storm on Saturday is only likely to increase the workload.

Shillamill Viaduct 2 JPGThe “Olympic swimming pool with no water supply” as Rail magazine described it in 2012 – Shillamill Viaduct on the Withered Arm between Tavistock and Bere Alston, as seen in 2011.

Are there any other long sections of railway with no diversionary routes?

The next mainline north from the Far West of England is the South Wales Mainline, which ultimately has the Heart of Wales line as an emergency get-out if it gets breached between Newport and Swansea plus numerous looping avoiding lines along the way. The Cambrian Coast line and the North Wales Coast Mainline do not quite meet but can complement and substitute for each other to a limited extent, whereas there are no other railways at all near Plymouth. The two “Roads to the Isles”, the Mallaig and Kyle lines, can manage much the same complementary effect. The only other equivalent to the Far West of England is Inverness to Wick and Thurso; since in British railway terms Penzance is farthest south and Thurso is furthest north this is oddly appropriate, but the relative population and traffic levels could hardly be more different.

Thurso 2 JPGLooking southwards from the bufferstops at Thurso, awaiting the first train (of four) of the day to Inverness.