A Note on Dawlish


This is what the West of England main line at Dawlish looked like this week. Plymouth and Cornwall are now cut off from the national rail network and may be for a while to come. Before 1968 this would not have happened as there was another route from Exeter to Plymouth passing to the North of Dartmoor, through Okehampton and Tavistock.  Indeed until 1958 there was another line between Exeter and Newton Abbott along the Teign Valley. I wrote about them here.

The point is that, even fifty or so years ago, there were concerns about rising sea levels at Dawlish and voices were heard warning about the dangers of closing and lifting alternative routes. They were ignored. But what is to be done now? Well, for a change long term thinking is needed. Reopening the Tavistock route may not be possible even though a significant portion of the trackbed remains intact and there has also been talk of reopening the Teign Valley line. There is also the possibility of raising the level of the line at Dawlish. None of these options is cheap. Network Rail comes onto the public sector balance sheet on September 1st which will certainly must mean reluctance from the government to increase its debt which already stands at £32 billion. Expect more make do and mend. And more disruption on the network.



Bank Holiday Monday found us in Lincolnshire, taking a ride on the Lincolnshire Wolds Railway, a short trip through flat countryside between the villages of Ludborough and North Thoresby. This is a pleasant if unexciting journey. The railway has only been running since 2009 and eventually aims to extend its operations to the capital of the Lincolnshire Wolds, Louth.

Despite appearances this is not the relic of a bucolic branch line. It was once part of an important thorough route from Grimsby to Peterborough via Boston. This was one of a number of such lines closed in the aftermath of the Beeching report. Many of these closures are now recognised as mistakes and some (for example the Varsity Line about which I have written before) are being reversed. In many cases, however, the indecent haste of British Rail to dismantle lines and sell off the land, as opposed to mothballing them, has led to many lines being lost for ever. The Great Central London extension, about which I have also written is the best example.

The new edition of Modern Railways  has a league table of the worst closures, Top of the table is the Waverley Route from Edinburgh to Carlisle (another closure that is now being partly reversed)  while the Great Central and the Grimsby-Peterborough route are also in the top five. There was another controversial closure in the top ten, the folly of which is almost certainly yet to be fully revealed.

One of the highlights of a railway trip to Devon is the thrilling section along the sea wall through Dawlish where you almost appear to be travelling along the waves particularly at high tide.  This section is now causing much soul searching at Network Rail as rising sea levels raise the prospect of frequent line closures or even worse, the section having to be abandoned altogether. The costs of building a replacement route further inland are not insignificant. Yet there were once two alternative routes. The Great Western had a line from Exeter to Newton Abbott along the Teign Valley closed in 1958, before Beeching,  while the London and South Western Railway had an alternative main line from Exeter to Plymouth  passing to the north of Dartmoor through Okekampton and Tavistock a town that once had two stations (being also on the GWR line from Plymouth to Launceston) but is now cut off from the national network. The logic of this closure was that it was a duplicate line and so not needed in times of rationalisation.

Yes, some may say, but rising sea levels could not have been predicted in 1968. Except that they could. Problems at Dawlish are nothing new and back in 1958, when the Teign Valley line was closed, it was suggested by more than one commentator that, even if not required now, the line should be mothballed rather than lifted, in case an alternative to the route through Dawlish was ever needed.   In 1958, it hardly needs to be said, no-one seriously thought that the ex-Southern route might only have a few years to go. What seemed obvious in 1958 surely still held good in 1968 when the Okehampton route finally closed. It is one of life’s little ironies that the trackbed of the Teign valley route is now, 54 years after closure, being considered as a possible alternative route.

Talk of a new line really shouldn’t be necessary. If the tide has turned against Beeching and the flawed assumptions on which his plan was based, a real tide may, in not too many years, expose possibly the biggest folly of all.