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ISSUE: 'Fair weather railway' has to be re-routed away from Dawlish sea wall

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: February 06, 2014

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With the main rail line closed again due to storm damage, Neill Mitchell, reminds us that this is a problem for which a credible solution was developed in the 1930s

Today, we might perhaps be wondering if the hapless spirit of King Canute has returned to taunt us once more! For, despite Network Rail’s repeated assurances concerning protection of the Great Western main line from the ravages of the sea at Dawlish, some 109 miles of the solitary arterial railway serving the Devon and Cornwall peninsula west of Exeter are – yet again – completely isolated from the UK’s InterCity rail network.

This is totally unacceptable. In the 21st century, the economic and social resilience of an EU region’s strategic rail connectivity should not remain exposed, year upon year, to the vagaries of a “Fair Weather Railway”? An economic artery whose services may be terminated or interrupted at short notice, merely by the effects of wind and wave, landslips or engineering works?

Something must surely be done! Well, unfortunately, since its closure on May 6, 1968, we no longer have the storm contingency option of diversion of services along the former LSWR/Southern main line to Waterloo via Okehampton. So, maybe that “Something” has to begin simply with the drawing of a line upon the map? A line to delineate the route which an inevitable future deviation of the Great Western Main line will have to follow and, hence, to germinate into DfT/Network Rail’s regional and rail infrastructure investment priorities over the coming years.

This is not a new idea. Indeed, just such a deviation has been mapped previously, backed by the force of statute and known as the “Dawlish Avoiding Line”. It was the product of pre-war surveying, civil engineering, rail operational and marketing expertise of the most accomplished of all regional rail companies – the Great Western Railway (GWR).

Planning of the Dawlish Avoiding Line (DAL) dates from the year 1935, at a time when the national rail network was ailing amid the global economic recession. Discussions between HM Treasury and the then “Big Four” Railway Companies duly led to an agreed programme of rail enhancement works to be instigated nationwide, all for completion by January 1, 1941.

The funding mechanism was set out in a document dated November 13, 1935, signed by the then Chancellor of the Exchequer Neville Chamberlain. The Treasury would establish an independent special purpose vehicle finance company, backed by a government loan guarantee limited to £26.5million. The GWR was empowered to draw upon “eleven fifty-third parts” of that facility, to support the numerous projects it had submitted for inclusion in the agreement. Principal amongst these, featuring as just a single line in the Treasury agreement (First Schedule, Part 1, Clause 2) read: “Construction of a new deviation line from Dawlish Warren to Newton Abbot” .

This led rapidly to the GWR planning the 16-mile DAL in minute detail, down to the level of drainage culverts and pedestrian accesses, culminating after consultations in the sponsorship of two enabling Bills through Parliament.

First to reach the Statute Book was the Great Western Railway (Additional Powers) Act 1936 in which the DAL is cited as “Railway No 1” (amongst several listed). The legislative authority was summarised as being for a railway extending to 8 miles 6 furlongs and 1 chain in length, from Newton Abbot (deviating near the rail bridge over the Hackney Canal Channel) and re-joining the main line at a point 62 chains north of Dawlish Warren station (alongside the River Exe Estuary).

This legislation was followed and amended by the supplementary Great Western Railway Act 1937 in which the deviation featured as “Railway No 2” and extending the route further north (past Kenton and Powderham) to Exminster. It added another 7 miles 3 furlongs and 7 chains of new railway, commencing with a junction outside Dawlish on the initial deviation route (authorised earlier by the 1936 Act) and terminating close to Exminster by a junction with the main line at a point 5 chains south of a bridge carrying Milbury Lane over the line.

The surveyors’ markers were then apparently set in place early in 1939 with a view to work commencing during the summer. But, in September, Hitler invaded Poland prompting the onset of the Second World War, followed later – in 1947 – by the nationalisation of the railways. The rest is history.

Today, the object of re-routing of the line would be to ensure resilient, all-weather high speed InterCity rail passenger and through freight services, west of Exeter onward to and from Penzance – consigning regional dependency upon the “Fair Weather Railway” to history. But, retaining the existing scenic line along the sea wall to facilitate weekend engineering work diversions from the new deviation, some scenic promotional potential for Cross-Country main line services from the Midlands and North (summer seasons/weekends etc) and local “Torbay/Riviera Shuttle” services between Exeter and Torquay, via Dawlish, Teignmouth and Newton.

Neill Mitchell is an independent regional transport analyst based in the Westcountry

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18 comments

  • thursday20  |  April 01 2014, 5:36AM

    What a great forum this is. Full of fantastic tips and information. So glad I found it. S t i l h a u s Kitchens Reviews

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  • Magrathea2011  |  February 09 2014, 12:48PM

    @Garthip, sadly you are quite correct in all the points you make.

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  • Garthp  |  February 09 2014, 9:44AM

    IMV there is no benefit in arguing against HS2 as a way of getting GW improvements. HS2 is going to happen, barring a political earthquake. What is now needed is the same kind of effort at bolstering the West Country route, building upon the current situation where politicians now recogise that "something must be done". BTW don't forget that work is needed in the Exe valley, Cowley Bridge and several miles north have been a longstanding problem area, with the railway needing to be raised probably half a metre. The only way this kind of work is going to get done is if a proper investment proposal is capable of being put together, balancing economic loss on the one side against the cost of works necessary. Quality of life might be a desirable attribute, but it is not really going to sway the accountants in the Treasury. It's a great pity that the 1930s proposals, including the work SW of Newton Abbot, didn't go ahead, since Plymouth now has undoubtedly the worst service (time taken) of any comparable place in the UK. One only has to travel beyond Newton Abbot by rail to see why, a unique combination of curves and gradients. Brunel has a lot to answer for!

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  • Magrathea2011  |  February 08 2014, 8:53PM

    In addition to the obvious 'need' to rethink the route, in my opinion there has to be a seed change in thinking Nationally where merely looking at cost benefit is the be all, end all to decision making. Quality of life for the WHOLE of the UK, not just the major centers of population need to be included as well. On that theme, HS2 is a classic example (IMO) of how not to decide on which project should be proceeded with, which incidentally we ALL are contributing to the central Government financial support for it, whether we in the South West get any real benefit from it or not. Likewise to radically overhaul infrastructure in the South West, why cannot the entire UK help fund it even though it may never be considered 'cost effective' by some measurements? Imagine what could be achieved in places not on the London / Birmingham / Manchester axis if that kind of money were spent in the rest of the UK instead !

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  • hstmtu4000  |  February 08 2014, 7:20PM

    Just look at a map of Devon and see where the modern A30 and A38 trunk roads are located relative to Devon's population centres, that should give you a clue as to where a modern railway should really be routed now. Ideally you would keep open the Owlish route for local/holiday services and if possible reopen the former LSWR route via Okehampton for local traffic and diversions. A city like Plymouth, Britains 15th largest city and Cornwall beyond of course need to be connected to Exeter and beyond by a much faster and more direct main rail line fit for the 21st century and not the present hopelessly inadequate slow and indirect 19th century one. Maybe it is time to take another look at the Great Western railways 1930s plans. As a FGW train manager said to me in Exeter this week, we haven't got to blast our way through hills these days using armies of workers to brick up tunnels because we have high tech tunnel boring machines to do the job now much more efficiently. If we can build the channel tunnel/HS1/HS2 and London's Cross rail tunnels then a two mile tunnel through the Halden hills shouldn't really be a problem should it, IF the money and just as importantly the political will are there. It so sad that what seemed a such a logical and straighforeward project in the late 1930s is today so controversial. No wonder we are going backwards railway wise in the south west when the rest of country continues to move forward.

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  • Magrathea2011  |  February 08 2014, 3:05PM

    Resurrecting the Dawlish Avoiding Line is the only viable option - at a cost!

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  • RoverP6B  |  February 08 2014, 11:41AM

    Sprintman, it doesn't matter how much of the land has been sold, it can be re-acquired. Both Network Rail (cf. the Waverley Route reopening in the Scottish Borders) and the heritage railway industry are adept at buying up land, especially when aided by compulsory purchase powers. Okehampton to Bere Alston is the most easily reopened of these lines, I think. There's also the Exeter & Teign Valley Railway, on which a voluntary group is working, but there are a LOT of obstacles in Exeter and Alphington to be overcome, not to mention the A38 on the trackbed near the Heathfield end. The A38 could actually be re-routed more easily than the railway, but the railway went right through what is now the A30/A377 junction in Marsh Barton and there are roads (including the A377 itself) all over the trackbed from the A30 to the big Sainsbury supermarket (from the far side of which the track into Exeter St Thomas is still in place). It would require some imaginative planning to get the railway back in here - but still cheaper than the Dawlish Avoiding Line (with all the tunnelling that would entail). As for winter weather on Dartmoor - any line can be kept open if it's important enough. It does seem to be modern rolling stock which is most vulnerable to snow, ice etc - but there are steam locomotives at Okehampton which could help out in winter.

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  • hstmtu4000  |  February 08 2014, 10:28AM

    Further to my last comment check this link http://tinyurl.com/ofpp8bw

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  • hstmtu4000  |  February 08 2014, 10:17AM

    It should be noted that back in 1937 even when the now closed LSWR main line route to Exeter via Tavistock/Okehampton was still open the government had decided with the then Great Western railway that the best option was to build what was known as the Dawlish avoiding line from Exminster near Exeter to Bishopsteignton near Newton Abbot involving a two mile tunnel through the Halden hills behind Dawlish and Teignmouth. The land was bought and even "pegged" out prior to construction starting, the whole scheme being financed with interest free government loans. At the same time a new rail route westward from Newton Abbot was surveyed bypassing Totnes and the notoriously slow Dainton and Rattery banks to a point near Marley tunnel near South Brent. Significantly both schemes were to be engineered to a minimum one mile radius curvature for high speed. But the start of the second world war stopped everything of course. By the time the war ended the country was near bankrupt and the land was eventually sold off in 1949 and so ended what effectively was Plymouths last real hope of being linked to Exeter by a fast railway line given the huge cost of such a scheme now. For those interested here are the 1935/36 Great Western Railway plans for a new route from Exminster near Exeter to Newton Abbot bypassing Teignmouth and Dawlish which are now held at the Devon Record Office Archives at Sowton in Exeter under the following references. Great Western Railway (Additional Powers) QS/DP/860 1935 Contents: 1) Railway No 1 (Newton Abbot and Dawlish): via parishes of Kingsteignton, Bishopsteignton, Urban Districts of Teignmouth and Dawlish; length 8 ¾ miles; commencing and terminating at junctions with South Devon Railway. 2)Bridge, River Diversions and Lands at Exeter: parish of Upton Pyne and Borough of Exeter. Included are sections of intended works and published map showing 1). Scale: 25" to the mile Surveyor: R. Carpmael (Engineer) Plans (pen, ink) and book of reference Great Western Railway. QS/DP/868 1936 Contents: 1) Railway No 2. (Dawlish and Exminster): via Urban District of Dawlish, parishes of Mamhead, Kenton, Powderham, Exminster; length 7½ miles; commencing at junction with railway No 1 (see QS/DP/860), terminating at junction with South Devon Railway; includes sections of railway and road diversions en route. 2) Lands at Totnes (and at Denham in County of Buckingham). Scale: 25" to the mile Surveyor: R. Carpmael (Engineer) Plan (pen, ink) and book of reference These documents are held at Devon Record Office How times have changed.

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  • sprintman  |  February 07 2014, 7:21PM

    Garthp - I agree with you, rebuilding in the short term is the only option. Any other route is going to be 20+ years away . The Exeter- Okehampton- Tavistock route as I recognise, is a possibility, but too much land been sold and it's can be vulnerable in the winter. That said, there is an argument , and that's been rumbling for several years, to complete the Bere Alston - Tavistock section to ease Plymouth Commuter issues. With no action on that, how on earth can anyone contemplate completing the whole line and as you say, it is many miles further than the existing Dawlish route. Let's not argue amongst iourselves about this as it's just the excuse the Government want to not do anything. No HST2 but GWR2

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