Under-promise and over-deliver – that is the best way to meet or even exceed expectations, in business and in much else in life. Network Rail, however, have reversed that homily, initially promising the storm-destroyed section of main line, on the Dawlish sea wall would re-open in six weeks, only to now have to admit it could be mid-April before the trains linking Cornwall, Plymouth and West Devon with the rest of the country will be running again.
It is an understandable – and forgivable – change of plan. After another severe storm, last Friday, which further damaged the line the original deadline for completing the repairs became simply unattainable. Yet, given the forecast for further disruptive weather, it would have been possible to foresee the difficulty of making repairs within six weeks almost from the moment work began. Most businesses in the South West, which rely on the railway line, were doubtful about a six week repair. Those doubts have been confirmed.
This is not, to be fair, a failing that can be entirely laid at the door of Network Rail. All it really does is underline, once again, the fragility of having a single main rail route west of Exeter in such an exposed and vulnerable situation as this. And while the day and night working that engineers have pledged to undertake, to get things moving again by the middle of April is appreciated, the problem will only truly be solved with an alternative, additional route.
The Dawlish line remains vital, let no one be in any doubt of that. It brings passengers to one of the most populous parts of Devon – Torbay and the surrounding towns and villages – and needs to be retained. But an additional inland route that keeps the peninsula open in times of storm and high seas is essential too, to make sure the western half of our region is never cut off in this way again.
Already the cost to Westcountry businesses is mounting up. A survey by Plymouth Chamber yesterday showed 26% of respondents rely on business from outside the region for 75% of their turnover, and 75% of South West businesses are experiencing difficulties with the closure of rail links, while almost 90% are finding it difficult to meet business contacts because the trains are not running. That disruption is now going to last for another couple of months. We cannot – and must not – be put in this position again.