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Dawlish rail damage has ‘devastating impact’ on South West tourism industry

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: March 03, 2014

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Tourist bosses have officially counted the cost of the winter storms as Tuesday marks a month since the region’s rail link was severed.

Network Rail last week revealed the shocking trail of destruction along almost four miles of track, which saw large breaches and landslips when giant waves punched a massive hole in the sea wall at Dawlish on February 4.

A round-the-clock operation involving 300 staff working across multiple sites to reinstate the broken rail line has turned the sleepy coastal town into a giant building site, with minibuses ferrying workers to and fro as a fleet of trucks supply thousands of tonnes of concrete.

A survey by the tourist organisations in Devon and Cornwall has now drawn up the full extent of the effect of the appalling weather during January and February, with 74% of the members who replied reporting that bookings for Easter were down, by as much as 20%.

Individuals have complained that negative perceptions that the peninsula was cut-off completely has prompted cancellations, including the costly scrapping of an luxury, Orient Express-style weekend tour for 300 rail passengers which has sent reverberations as far as the Isles of Scilly.

Statesman Rail, a Cornwall-based leisure train operator, has now abandoned its plans to run a service from Leeds and the Midlands to Penzance on April 11-13 in light of the delay to track repairs, which are now scheduled to be complete by the following weekend in time for Easter.

Peter Watkinson, operations director, said the decision has had a “devastating financial impact” on the small business and has called for an alternative route to be opened as soon as possible.

He also revealed the knock on effect to other businesses in Cornwall, where the Tregenna Castle Hotel, in St Ives, and the Falmouth Hotel and Beachfield Hotel, in Falmouth, had been left “empty for the entire weekend”.

The Isles of Scilly Steamship Company also lost 160 passengers, who were due to travel to St Mary’s for a day trip, and gardens at Trebah, Trelissick Gardens, Lands End and St Ives had also lost much needed revenue, he said.

Mr Watkinson urged the Government to prioritise a direct rail route between Newton Abbot and Exeter, arguing that rebuilding the former alternative route through Okehampton is “nothing short of farcical and a complete waste of money”.

“It will not only be a very slow line but all trains travelling to Cornwall will have to reverse at Exeter St David’s and Plymouth,” he added.

“The only viable alternative route would be to follow the original 1935 proposal and build a new line from Starcross to Newton Abbot around the back of Dawlish,” said Mr Watkinson.

Visit Cornwall has compiled the results of a Weather Impacts Survey of 646 tourist businesses, mostly hotels, 419 from Devon and 227 from Cornwall.

The results were handed to Whitehall officials as part of plans to launch an emergency public relations campaign to remind holidaymakers that the region remained “open for business”. Overall, 12% of respondents said they had been flooded during the past two months but 477 said they had suffered a negative impact.

Head of Visit Cornwall Malcolm Bell said adverse media coverage had been the “main theme”.

He said the perception had travelled as far as the lucrative market in Germany where visitors had been “looking for reassurance”.

“A week or so ago I was optimistic that bookings would return but it’s not looking as strong as we would like,” Mr Bell added.

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