Five years after the 2014 storms that destroyed the rail line at Dawlish, Chris Grayling announced an £80m investment in strengthening the sea wall. For Andrea Davis, Chair of the Peninsula Rail Task Force (PRTF), the fight for a secure south western mainline is not over.
When Dawlish collapsed five years ago, it was part of a combination of events that devastated the peninsula economy. Alongside the closure of Cowley Bridge at Exeter, and the flooding of the Somerset Levels, for a short time the south west was effectively cut off from the rest of the country. The cost to the region’s economy has been estimated at £1.2bn.
Vulnerable: The rail line at Dawlish
Set up during the aftermath of the collapse, the PRTF has campaigned long and hard for the Government to ensure that the South West has a strategic rail network fit for purpose.
I was with the secretary of state when he visited Dawlish last week, on the 15th February, to announce the new funding. The Government has made a number of assurances to us over the past five years that Dawlish is the number one rail priority and I was glad to see this evidence of its good intentions. The major resilience works to the Dawlish seawall that this funding can deliver are long overdue.
The announcement of funding to address the vulnerability the line at Dawlish is welcome, but rail resilience along the main Great Western line is far from secure. Dawlish has remained exposed to storms and bad weather ever since the collapse.
In November 2018, 30% of CrossCountry trains terminated early at Exeter as a result of sea spray and adverse weather conditions. It is unacceptable that services are disrupted and we hope that Network Rail’s proposal for a higher seawall at Dawlish will resolve this issue.
However fundamentally, if the franchise is unable to operate with the weather conditions experienced along the railway, it is not fit for purpose.
Either the terms of the franchise should include significant penalty payments if the operator fails to run the service along the whole extent of the route, or the franchise should be opened up to other options.
Even now, rail passengers have to transfer to buses on a regular basis as a precautionary measure. The section of the line between Parsons Tunnel and Teignmouth is still susceptible to closures because of the risk from loose material coming down from the cliff top.
It cannot take another five years for the Government to make the next announcement. When compared with the investment going into HS2, we are simply asking for a rail network that works. As a matter of priority, Network Rail and the Department for Transport must find solutions to ensure the resilience of the line around Parsons Tunnel.
PRTF’s work is not all focused on rail infrastructure, critical though that is. In January, we met with South West MPs to discuss PRTF’s immediate priorities, which include the delivery of improved mobile and WiFi connectivity along the rail network, as well as a commitment from the Department of Transport to increase trains between Plymouth and Penzance to two per hour.
The PRTF will continue to work with Network Rail and the Department for Transport to ensure that the Parsons Tunnel works remain a top rail priority, and that the Government allocates funding for Network Rail to commence the next stage of resilience works as soon as plans are submitted.
The railway is essential to the South West economy. It must remain open regardless of weather conditions, so that trains can operate all year round. The line’s vulnerability during adverse weather cannot be allowed to dictate the level of service endured by passengers in the region.