Cornwall Cut Off

The scenic section of railway along the sea wall in Dawlish is justifiably famous. Scenic though it is, it’s also vulnerable to stormy seas. Just how vulnerable was shown this week. During another period of violent weather, the sea wall collapsed, leaving the rails hanging in mid-air. Network Rail estimate that repairs could take several months.

This is not the only section of railway to suffer flood damage this year. However, it is the only railway to run into the south west, so its closure cuts off Cornwall and large parts of Devon from the rest of the rail network. Good rail links are vital to an area’s economy, so the implications of a prolonged closure are serious. 

There used to be two other railways that provided access to the area, but they both closed many years ago. The first of these shut in 1958 and ran between Exeter and Newton Abbot via Chudleigh. It was a single track branch line, with steep gradients and two tunnels. A short section survives for freight trains, between Newton Abbot and Heathfield, but north of there, large parts of the alignment have been lost to new road schemes. I understand parts of it are also prone to flooding as the line followed the river Teign for some of its length.

The other route was longer and ran between Exeter and Plymouth via Okehampton. It passed through some sparsely populated country and also had severe gradients, but was laid out as a main line. This was closed as a though route in 1968, but apart from twenty miles between Meldon and Bere Alston, it still exists. The missing miles are largely intact.

I also understand that the Great Western Railway planned to build a “cut-off” line avoiding Dawlish in the 1930s, and even bought land for the purpose. Unfortunately, thanks to the outbreak of WW2, it never got built.

As I wrote in my essay on the Beeching Report last year, one of the report’s aims was to eliminate what it saw as duplicate routes. The Okehampton line duplicated the current line between Exeter and Plymouth so it had to go. It takes very little hindsight indeed to see this as a very short-sighted move. The vulnerability of the Dawlish line was obvious even then: indeed, the Okehampton line was used to divert mainline trains shortly after it was closed when the line through Dawlish was blocked. 

With the current closure at Dawlish likely to be lengthy, I think it’s time that serious consideration is given to reopening one of the closed lines as a diversionary route. It won’t be cheap, but it’s strategically vital. Set this against the cost of probable future repairs at Dawlish, and the possibility that this line may even have to be abandoned at some point. All the indications seem to suggest that violent, unpredictable weather is likely to be more common in future. There is also the risk of rising sea levels caused by global warming. But we shouldn’t wait until then. An alternative route needs to be planned and built as soon as possible. If we don’t do this, large parts of south west England face being permanently isolated from the rest of the rail network. This will force even more traffic onto the area’s roads with serious consequences for the area’s economy and environment.

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