Home Comment Is the Dawlish train line still a viable option?

Is the Dawlish train line still a viable option?

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Chris Passey argues that the Dawlish line is truly iconic and should remain as the chosen mainline to Cornwall, albeit with a healthy dose of structural improvements.

The coastal railway line which runs between Dawlish Warren and Teignmouth has often been stated to be one of the most beautiful stretches of railway in Britain. Encompassing part of the English Riviera section of coast, this iconic stretch straddles the characteristic red sandstone cliffs merely metres from the imposing waters of the English Channel. The line itself was envisioned by Isambard Kingdom Brunel and completed in 1846. Although modern developments to the line’s infrastructure have occurred since then, its positioning has remained almost identical to how it originally looked.

Photo Credit: Tutenkhamun Sleeping via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Tutenkhamun Sleeping via Compfight cc

Minor collapses have occurred in the past but it was the storms preceding February 5th which ultimately caused the seawall’s demise. The resulting damage has completely cut-off all railway services south of Exeter. Network Rail currently is unsure of how long the line will take to be fully repaired but this does not mean the line won’t collapse again.

This leaves structural engineers with a major dilemma; should continual re-engineering of the line be the solution or should the mainline be re-routed away from the coast? Unknown to many, smaller railway branches used to run inland to villages including Ide and Chudleigh. These routes bypassed the coast but still linked Exeter with Teignmouth. Following the recent storms, there have been plans to reopen railway lines of the past. The big question is should they be?

The overlying factor governing this decision is cost. Redeveloping rural railway lines which have been disused and removed for more than fifty years is going to cost a fortune. Building a new line from scratch will cost even more, so should the focus be more on strengthening the existing route?

For those in favour of developing a new mainline route, whilst preserving the current line for local services, the planning, development and building costs will be stratospheric. There is very little visible evidence of rural routes of the past, closed as a result of the Beeching Cuts of 1965, favouring buses for rural services. What’s more, existing stations have been converted into homes and the route of the tracks redeveloped over the past fifty years. This leaves the conception of developing an entirely new railway route the more hopeful alternative; but at what cost and where will it go?

One of the reasons why Brunel developed the railway line along the seafront was because that was the most efficient route to take. In terms of engineering works, the line does not have to overcome the undulating terrain and steep gradients of inland areas. To try and construct a new mainline through the countryside would require an almost unimaginable amount of planning to try and overcome the continual peaks and troughs of the landscape. Tunnels would seemingly be endless and although large towns are not apparent, many small villages would be affected; both in the developmental and operational stages.

I suspect people directly affected by the demise of the railway line at Dawlish would want the mainline to be re-routed. However, I believe keeping the existing line is the more effective option. The negative impact on the rural inland would not be outweighed by the benefits of the less vulnerable coastal route. Besides, how long would the re-routing take throughout the planning and construction stages? Simply rebuilding the collapsed stretch is estimated to take anywhere from six to eight weeks or more. What’s more, the existing route would have to be effectively reinforced whilst the new route was being built.

Without altering the aesthetics of the countryside south-west of Exeter or trying to redevelop rural routes long lost to the past, the only economically-viable option surely is to continue to maintain the existing coastal route. With the money saved in trying to develop a new route, a substantial increase in resilience to the waves could be developed for the existing one.

However, simply re-engineering the wall may not be enough. Published articles have shown the current composition of concrete and brick is ill-effective. Strategies to reduce the power of the waves through offshore breakers or other coastal structures may be required. If storms of such power and duration are to become more frequent, then protection measures are going to have to be suitably substantial. Dawlish beach is a popular destination, particularly during the summer months, so maintaining the aesthetics of the area is a major priority too.

Ultimately, to reduce the costs and social objections an entirely new line would create, reinforcing the current route must be the most economically viable policy. Of course, this tactic is not necessarily the easiest option, particularly in preventing future collapses in similar or stronger storms. Aside from the weaknesses in the current infrastructure, the Dawlish line is truly iconic and should remain as the chosen mainline to Cornwall, albeit with a healthy dose of structural improvements.

Chris Passey

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