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