Engineers have revealed publicly for the first time the sheer scale of the workload required to restore the severed rail link through Devon.
Network Rail offered a behind-the-scenes glimpse along the devastated four-mile stretch of tracks at Dawlish, part of which was left hanging in the air above a giant crater after a vicious storm earlier this month.
The initial six-week repair timetable was last week set back until mid-April after more bad weather – the equally ferocious Valentine’s Day storm – caused fresh damage.
Workers said the powerful breakers lifted huge concrete slabs like playing cards and shifted around the row of 11 rubble-filled shipping containers which had been deployed as a temporary sea defence.
Despite the catalogue of devastation, senior engineers say the target to re-open the line by Easter remains realistic and, with help from the weather, services could resume before the key holiday period.
Project manager Tom Kirkham said: “It is really important to get the message across that we have got a real challenge here and to justify why the work is planned to be finished by mid-April.
“All the focus has been on the issue of the hole, but it is not just about that – there are hundreds of metres of damage to walls and landslips between Teignmouth and Dawlish.
“We are focused on the job and doing all that we can, working 24 hours a day – if the weather and other factors allow, we may be able to restore services earlier.”
Rail bosses closed the line at 3.15pm on Tuesday, February 4, after marine buoys predicted “black” storm conditions with six-metre waves. Dozens of families were evacuated that night, before the shocking extent of the damage from overtopping waves became evident at first light.
Rails and sleepers spanning the hole were cut off and concrete sprayed on the crater to prevent any further damage – scaffolding was erected and shipping containers deployed as a temporary breakwater, allowing work to begin in earnest.
The rail quango now has some 300 staff employed on day and night shifts on a sprawling construction site which stretches 3.7 miles south from a headquarters at Dawlish Warren station.
Such is the scale of the operation that a fleet of minibuses is operating to ferry workers between the separate areas where work is being carried out and the main offices.
Since the last storm subsided, laying waste to a further 20 metres of sea wall to add to the 80 metres already toppled, engineers have managed to lay concrete foundations along the track and station.
This week, work to clear and restore the parapet walls continued and steel reinforcement was added to the foundations.
Teams can be seen working all the way along the tracks and walkways, which drop steeply to the sea, tied on to steel safety wires.
Alex Evason, senior construction manager, said the biggest challenges they face is the weather and access to the site to transport plant and materials.
He said work has had to stop on numerous occasions because of the ferocity of the wind and waves.
“It is such an aggressive area and we want to give an idea of the vast amount of damage that has been done as well as the landslides,” he added.
“I was here on Valentine’s night and I have never seen anything like the waves before in this country – you looked out and just saw this snarling beast – it wasn’t safe to work.
“It is an amazing location – I have had people who have never been here contact me since the storm saying they can’t wait to come down when it re-opens.
“It is up to us engineers to make it secure and get it open – the investment will come later for other schemes.”
Teignbridge District Council yesterday said the road behind the tracks would be re-instated two weeks after Network Rail had re-opened the line.