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.

A Tale of a Tunnel and a Bridge

The footpath skirted the top of the cutting as it followed the contour of the land down to the level of the old railway. I scrambled down the side of the cutting onto the trackbed which was waterlogged and overgrown with birch saplings. I pcked my way through the baby forest and from barely ten yards away a massive brick structure was suddenly revealed. It came as something of a shock. Above the portal was the date 1898. I walked up to the now barred tunnel entrance and gazed into the dank gloom. There was a pinprick of light. This was the north portal of the tunnel 2,973 yards away. It was proof that the tunnel was gun barrel straight, a fine example of Victorian civil engineering. .

I was in Northamptonshire and this was Catesby Tunnel  on the Great Central railway London Extension, opened in March 1899 and closed south of Rugby in September 1966, a line that died so young that children who stood excitedly to see the first train arrive at their local station were still alive to bring grandchildren to see the final train in more sombre circumstances. In view of recent discussions about HS2 it is worth reflecting on what was lost when the GCR closed and on the short sightedness of British transport policy.

The GCR London extension was the brainchild of Sir Edward Watkin Chairman of the Manchester Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway. The line ran from Annesley in Nottinghamshire to Quainton Road in Buckinghamshire where it joined the previously existing Metropolitan Railway which Watkin conveniently happened to own. In London two new miles of line were built, tunnelling under Lord’s cricket ground to a new terminus at Marylebone.   When the line opened on 15th March 1899 the MSL changed its name to Great Central Railway. Commercially the line was a failure. All the major places it served, such as Nottingham Leicester and Rugby already had established connections to the capital and passengers mainly stayed loyal to the older railway companies. Although via its branch to Banbury and link with the Western Region it provided a useful link between the East Midlands and the West Country it was considered vulnerable in the harsh climate of the Beeching years and became the most spectacular casualty of the closure programme with complete closure south of Rugby in 1966.

What was lost was a superbly engineered railway with no level crossings, no curve of less than a mile radius and no steep gradients. It was also the only British main line built to a continental loading gauge. This was because Watkin planned to go beyond London to the South Coast and to the planned Channel Tunnel.  Watkin and his railway were a hundred years ahead of their time. Had the GCR not been closed we would not need to spend the next fifteen years building HS2 as a large part would already be in place. Indeed some of the GC formation south of Brackley has been proposed for reuse. As part of East West rail trains will again run from Calvert through Quainton Road to Aylesbury. In a few years heritage steam trains will again connect Nottingham and Leicester over GC metals. The railway did not die but as a through rourte it is broken up beyond recall. Catesby Tunnel will continue to disappear into its wilderness. It could all have been different.

And what of the bridge? The GC crossed Leicester on a series of bridges and viaducts of which substantial sections remained until recent years.  A particularly fine latticed girder bridge, known as the Bowstring Bridge, spanned the junction of Western Boulevard and Braunstone Gate not far from the castle. It was a popular local landmark and you could almost imagine that, if you waited long enough a train would eventually rattle over it. It was demolished by Leicester City Council in November 2009 despite a long and bitter campaign to save it. The plan was to release land to sell to De Montfort University to build a sports hall.Officially it was announced that the bridge was in poor condition and would cost too much to make safe. In fact the demolition costs were higher than expected because the bridge, built in 1898 by Henry Lovatt of Wolverhampton was in such good condition, forty years after the final train passed over it.  More fine Victorian engineering. To read just how fine, indeed unique,read this.


Three years on the site is windswept and empty. It is  sad and fitting comment on the treatment of the finest railway this country ever had. and the narrow minds that failed to see its potential.