An alternative Dawlish railway line should be built as it will deliver greater economic benefits than forecast, an academic has said.
Professor Jon Shaw, a transport expert at the University of Plymouth, said a Government-commissioned report that rated a new line “poor value for money” was too pessimistic
He called on the region’s business and political leaders to “make a compelling case” for a £3billion rail investment package, and pointed to the re-building of the 30-mile railway between Edinburgh and the Scottish borders as a scheme going ahead despite struggling to justify costs.
He went on that university research suggests the infamous Devon coastal line that collapsed at Dawlish during last winter’s storms risked closures or restrictions for more than 100 days a year because of climate change.
This summer, the Government published Network Rail’s report that detailed seven alternative routes that would cost between £400 million and £3 billion.
The quango appraised each route according to the Department for Transport’s benefits and costs ratio – or BCR – that measures the economic benefits of every pound spent.
Projects with a BCR of greater than 4.0 – or £4 of benefit for every £1 spent – are considered very high value for money, while schemes with less than 1.0 are considered poor value.
It found the former London and South Western Railway route from Exeter to Plymouth via Okehampton had a BCR of just 0.14, with one of the proposed tunnels under Haldon Hill getting 0.08.
Professor Shaw, associate head of the school of Geography, said the report paid too much attention on the monetary return on investment and not enough on the value of a reliable railway in a remote and rural part of the world.
He pointed to the £353 million so-called Borders Railway, currently under construction, connecting the Scottish capital to rural communities. It scored a BCR of just 0.5.
The original estimate of the Jubilee Line extension which opened in 1999 – connecting Green Park to Stratford in east London – was 0.95 despite serving millions of people. The score given to HS2, the £50 billion high-speed London to the north railway, is just 2.3.
Professor Shaw said: “BCR is open to a certain amount of ‘interpretation’ or ‘tweaking’ because what you get out often depends on what you put in.
“The Network Rail figures that have been produced for the Dawlish scheme options are extremely low – this makes them look very poor value for money – but then they take no account of the wider economic benefit the railway brings to the region.”
He said the Borders Railway is being built because there was a “political push” to invest in rural areas.
The university’s study of sea level rises also found by 2020 problems on the coastal track could double in frequency, and by around 2060 water “overtopping” could lead to services disrupted or lost for 120 days per year.
Professor Shaw would opt for re-opening the Okehampton line, costing £800 million, rather than spending £3 billion tunnel on an “expensive” tunnel to save ten minutes on journey times.
He would then want the balance spent on “loads of improvements to the speed, signalling and resilience” on the line between Reading to Exeter.
“A scheme that re-opens the Okehampton line and upgrades the Berkshire and Hampshire benefits the whole region, not just Plymouth, Torbay and Cornwall,” he said.
“Exeter is important in the scheme of peninsula politics, and if all politicians are going to sing from the same hymn sheet then Exeter needs to benefit from any proposed investment as well.”
He said while Network Rail “may be lukewarm about spending a lot of money” on an additional line but it is politicians making the decision.
He said: “It’s up to the movers and shakers in the region to build on the good work they’ve started and make a compelling and unified case for investment.
“The South West has the lowest transport infrastructure spend per head of the population of any English region. We have among the oldest trains, not a single mile of electrified railway and poor road connections. Now is the time to fight for real improvement. Look at how the local authorities in the north have got their act together – and that’s paying big dividends.”
A Department for Transport spokesman said the study was “an important first step” designed to “explore initial options for making the railway more resilient”.
“Social and economic benefits were assessed using methods that are standard across the industry,” she said.
“This report will feed into a more detailed rail study, currently being developed by Network Rail and stakeholders, that will form part of our long-term plans for the region. Network Rail are due to report back later this year.”