If you’ve ever looked at some picturesque photos of British railways, perhaps in a specialist railway magazine – we’re not judging – then you’ve probably seen images of the South West Railway sea wall, with trains running tantalisingly close to the sea, either framed by blue skies and blue water or being battered by dramatic waves, depending on the region’s notoriously changeable weather.
Designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel and open since the 1840s, the line was placed so close to the water to avoid the ruinous cost of tunnelling through the South Devon hills. From Dawlish Warren to Teignmouth the line is, with the odd interruption, exposed to the sea, affording the striking images so beloved of rail photographers. Its exposed placement also inevitably leads to speed limitations, closure and damage to the infrastructure. This would be a matter of purely local interest were it not for the fact that the sea wall is an unavoidable link in rail routes to the South West.
Main line trains run from London Waterloo and Paddington down to the Devon hub of Exeter St Davids, before continuing on to Plymouth, Truro and other destinations on the peninsula. Trains leaving St Davids reach the bottleneck very quickly, following the river Exe and its estuary, before dipping behind the sand dunes and emerging on to the sea wall.
What happens to the track at the small seaside towns of Dawlish Warren and Dawlish therefore has an impact on the whole region. South Devon and Cornwall are inaccessible by rail when the sea wall is temporarily closed or, as happened in January 2014, when storms breached the sea wall altogether, damaging it so severely it took weeks to repair.
While it’s easy to understand the economic logic of building the sea wall in the first place, unsurprisingly the economics of maintaining the damn thing have proven less compelling. The sea wall is considered to be, per mile, the most expensive stretch of Network Rail’s network to maintain. It’s also baffling to modern eyes why the main line rail services for a whole region would flow through such a vulnerable bottle neck.
The Devon rail network. Image: Travel Devon.
As with so many oddities of the British rail system, these perversities emerged from the rapid change that came in the mid 20th century through war, nationalisation and Dr Beeching.
The need for a Dawlish Avoiding Line was identified as early the 1930s. This would have diverted from the existing route at Exminster, and rejoined the line between Teignmouth and Newton Abbot, passing through Dawlish inland. Tweaks to the plan were made, but by 1939 construction was under way, only to be suspended when war broke out. Work on the project did not resume after the war, and when the Great Western Railway became part of the nationalised British Railways it was not a priority. The land for the Dawlish Avoiding Line was later sold by British Rail and has subsequently been built on, so that was that.
In the 1960s, Dr Beeching’s axe fell on rail routes across Devon, including the lines through North Devon that had provided an alternative rail route through the county. Those closed lines have also been extensively built on or converted to other uses, leaving a single main line through Devon, and rendering the sea wall unavoidable.
In recent years the condition of the sea wall has become increasingly precarious. That’s not only due to storm damage to the wall itself, but also due to the potential for erosion of cliffs overlooking the rail line, resulting in falling rocks. While this has been an ongoing issue since... well, since the sea wall was opened over 150 years ago, the storm of 4 February 2014 brought the matter to national attention. The visual of twisted rails hanging out into empty space illustrated the problem in a way pages of reports on the precarious nature of the line never could.
An army of Network Rail workers descended on Dawlish to get the line re-opened within two months. But repairing the damage hasn’t resolved the base problem, and climate change increases the likelihood of further major storm damage. In October 2018 the line was hastily closed for weekend repairs when storms resulted in a six foot hole appearing under the tracks near Teignmouth.
Supportive noises of varying intensity and occasional oblique funding commitments have come from government in the last five years, and investigations and consultations have been conducted by both Network Rail and the Peninsula Rail Task Force, a group set up by local councils in the wake of February 2014. Proposals currently on the table include Network Rail’s plan to extend a section of the sea wall further out to sea, away from the crumbling cliffs, and reopening the Okehampton line across Dartmoor to provide an alternative rail route between Exeter and Plymouth.
But in spite of talk about investment and grand plans, no major work is underway or funded, with Network Rail continuing their work maintaining and repairing the existing line, and the situation seems unlikely to change soon.
Massive spending on rail infrastructure in the South West is a hard Westminster sell, especially in the Brexit-addled political climate of the last few years. And with the parliamentary map of the region dominated by blue there’s been little political will to challenge the vague commitments of government. One of the South West’s few Labour MPs, Exeter’s Ben Bradshaw, is particularly damning of the failure of Tory MPs to put pressure on the government, using a recent column for Devon Live to describe them as “feeble”.
But regardless of the political will to solve the problems of rail in the South West, barring a string of unusually gentle winters, the issue isn’t going away soon. If the South West is to be an accessible and successful part of the UK, then it needs stable rail infrastructure that can survive whatever the weather throws at it.