It’s been quite a busy time for Dawlish as far as the news headlines are concerned. The 5 year anniversary of the railway collapse at Sea Lawn terrace brought news crews and reporters to the town in large numbers to look back on events. For some, it was a painful reminder. For others it was a chance to reflect on how the town came together in support of those affected. For most, especially those outside of the town’s perimeter it was a chance to comment on the repairs and subsequent lack of a long term solution being announced.

CrossCountry Voyager in it’s preferred dry environment

Let me go through the last ten days or so. Devon was inundated with snow and transport yet again came to a grinding halt on the roads. So what about the railway? Well I am delighted to say that inspite of an easterly giving us some overtopping waves and dramatic pictures, the railway functioned as normal along the coastal route. Normal in as much as GWR ran a full service and CrossCountry cancelled their Voyagers. Yet again the misleading headline “Trains Cancelled” hit the media feeds. Wholly unreflective of the real situation which just leaves those travelling  believing they are much better off jumping in their cars.

Apart from the CrossCountry Voyager issue, GWR had issues with two of the new IET trains. The exact reasons are not yet known but it is worth noting that these were both 800 models with department for transport specifications rather than the 802 model leased from Eversholt Rail. The 802’s were specifically designed to operate in rough sea conditions and I really can’t say why the 800’s would be any different.

Class 802 taking on the waves at Dawlish

Hitachi and GWR have been investigating the fault which left the engines running but failed to deliver power. The trains later made a full recovery and continued journeys a few hours later. It is imperative that the 800’s perform as well as the 802’s as they were always intended for use to Paignton before being extended to the Plymouth and Penzance diagrams.

Unlike the Voyagers, which Rail Magazine first reported 17 years ago as having sea water issues, the new IET sets will be worked on to discover the issues and made fit to run in any condition. GWR have always had pride about running a service during the most challenging conditions and the likelihood of having Voyager issue part two just won’t be tolerated.

CrossCountry Voyagers pass in front of San Remo camera

Now for the news on those Voyagers. CrossCountry are reported to be looking into an engineering solution which will allow the trains to run in any conditions. Don’t hold your breath! After 17 years do we really believe that a franchise approaching it’s end will invest in a solution without a guarantee that the franchise will be renewed to justify the outlay? Many have joined our call for the now stored HST sets to be made available for this route. Sets are also due to be available from LNER which may even be a better solution.

There is a distinct advantage to this HST scheme. Not only would it provide an all weather solution to south west services beyond Exeter but it would allow the released Voyagers to provide more capacity on the overcrowded Midlands core routes. On the negative side, the HST sets would need upgrading to meet the new regulations coming into force in 2020. This includes electric doors, toilet retention tanks and disability access. Those upgrades should not be ignored but I will argue that until new rolling stock orders are placed then derogation of these sets must be allowed as a short term solution.

Now stored HST sets available for another job?

Wabtec in Doncaster have been responsible for the modifications and are at full capacity for the next couple of years. This is a time consuming fix as the HST coaches are all unique and a standard jig cannot be used on the coaches when carrying out the modifications. Delivery of the GWR Castle sets and Scotrail sets is already a long way behind the original schedule.

Politics! oh dear, We don’t usually comment on the subject but as a special dispensation lets do it. In the last few weeks, Luke Pollard, MP for Plymouth Sutton & Devonport has asked a number of questions in Parliament. Ranging from the Voyager problem to demanding the rail Minister announces funding for the Dawlish solution. I have spoken with Mr Pollard and it is clear that he suffers the same frustration as many of us about the lack of any real action when it comes to south west rail infrastructure. If only our own MP would take this up. I have attempted to get comment and support from Teignbridge MP Anne Marie Morris but as yet she has declined to voice an opinion or return my calls or messages. I believe the local community would love to hear of her support and so I again appeal for her to get in touch.

GWR IET enjoying a sunny run along the wall

GWR were also subject of a debate with regards to their franchise. Mixed comments on how well they were doing and lots about the implementation of the IET sets. Particular mention was made of the comfort and catering onboard. Personally I like the new trains and am happy to have new trains rather than 40 year old sets working our route. We all need to move on at some point and i doubt many of you are still  using 40 year old cars?

Next? oh yes the Great Storm 5 year anniversary. Our post’s this week have been received well. Lot’s of comments and appreciation as we looked back and shared some new photos and videos. We also have a mini documentary which will be available from 7.30 pm on the 7th February. These were the early days for and we only had the single camera at San Remo back then. That camera though gave us an extraordinary view of the repairs and methods employed by the hundreds of engineers who reinstated and then reinforced the weakest section of the Dawlish wall. We hope you have enjoyed what has been presented.

Deliberately left until last comes the subject of Network Rails planning application for Kings Walk! Beware that I will probably contradict myself several times in the next few minutes!

To coincide with the 5 year anniversary, Network Rail used Monday as the perfect timing to announce plans on the resilience plans. Go and get a cup of coffee as this may take a while!”

Artist’s impression of the new look concrete Kings Walk

I’m sure by now that most of you would have had time to see the lovely artist’s impression of a new look and higher seawall between the Colanade viaduct and Kennaway tunnel. Whist accepting the need for resilience along the coastal route I find myself questioning the priorities and timescales required for safeguarding the mainline.

What I really want to hear announced is the plan for the Hocombe to Teignmouth section. Rumour has it that this will come within the next two weeks and will suggest the regrading of the cliffs as the chosen option. Taking the line out to sea and away from cliff falls appears to be fiercely opposed by environmentalists, conservationists and residents of Holcombe & Teignmouth wanting to retain the beach.

Clay tanks pass the original site of Sea Lawn House and showing the dropped footpath. This left this section with just 18 inches of protecting wall.

I had already covered the weak nature of the wall in front of Sea Lawn Terrace in an earlier article. For those who missed the information it relates to the then land owner Mr Powell. He would only give his consent for the railway if the sea side footpath was lowered to secure his privacy. This left the sea wall only 18 inches wide for the 200 yard section and had always been noted for potential failure. Even so, that section did, with a few minor breaches, last for 175 years. It took an extreme weather event with hurricane force winds, coupled with very high spring tides to combine for the perfect conditions to breach.

The pictures show the complete devastation caused along the entirety of the wall in 2014. Yes the breach was the most widely reported destruction but much of the parapet wall failed and ballast was washed over the tracks from Dawlish Warren to Teignmouth. Lets not actually forget that despite this onslaught all but 50 metres of wall withstood the severest test ever.

View from Lea Mount of the devastation caused along the entire line during 2014 Great Storm

For the main part the wall is made up of 8 feet of pure Dartmoor Granite. It has faced severe storms before on countless occasions and done exactly what it was put there to do. It stands as a national monument to Victorian engineering and building techniques and I for one would like to see it kept with the same Granite facade that gives Dawlish such a unique atmosphere. The plan to have a concrete wall, even if moulded to resemble stone, does not sit well with me.

Stated in the planning application Heritage statement, it says that the construction would have a direct impact on two heritage assests. The sea wall itself and the footbridge at Kennaway tunnel portal. A certificate of immunity has been granted and I know that Network Rail have always had a fear of the wall being listed for preservation in it’s current state. I would suggest that altering the appearance of the wall will concrete over much of Dawlish’s heritage and that the provision of a “Heritage Board” by Teignbridge Council is scant consolation for the real thing.

One of the biggest issues in re-opening the line was the 20,000 tonnes of landslip between Holcombe and Teignmouth. This remains much more of a threat than the sea.

There have been many studies and reports into the effect of global warming on our coastline. In particular some of these excellent reports relate to the effect on the coastal railway. These reports need to be taken seriously as they form the basis for taking this route into the next 100 years. I am in no hurry for a quick fix. I would much rather see the process carried out properly with the end result achieving it’s aim. 5 years has been long enough though to decide a plan of action and a timescale for work and funding. The number one priority for me is to announce those plans for the cliffs and not adding to the thickness and height along the Dawlish stretch.

Our many photographs and videos show how the sea spray often reaches some 50 feet into the air and is then blown over trains using the line.

Wave spray frequently reaches above train height during Easterly storms

An extra 2.5 metres won’t actually alter that in any way although the implementation of a wave return in the Boat Cove section would indeed be welcomed. The thickening of the wall? I’m not convinced that would be required at this stage either if it wasn’t for the need to use this method for securing the additional height. There is also a bonus of a new wall to prevent the drop onto the beach. Too many times we have seen people (Including myself as a youngster) taking on the waves with little consideration of the dangers to ourselves or those sent to rescue badly thought out intentions.

The cost? for this build will be £35 million for 360 metres. I’m really not bothered about cost. Government were guilty of a knee jerk reaction when the breach occurred and announced the “money is not an issue” response without an understanding of the situation at the time. They were taken in by those  same images the rest of us saw and for some reason assumed the “Chicken Lickin” approach. The cost of ultimately losing the line will be far more and quicker if plans are not implemented over a realistic timescale.

Controversially now, I would suggest that while we wait for the Holcombe to Teignmouth section to be announced, implementation of the Northern route should begin. This will happily serve the northern area of Devon and Cornwall where demand is growing. It is a stand on it’s own merits project and has the bonus of acting as a diversion should the unthinkable ever occur to the main line again. It would also be available for when the Holcombe work begins and causes closures on the main line. It’s the second win win situation contained within this article!

And so to my conclusion,

  • We need properly thought through resilience to the south west transport infrastructure including North Devon and Somerset marshes.
  • The 8 feet of Granite wall currently does it’s job well and does not need to be covered in concrete by tomorrow.
  • Most important and at risk section is between Holcombe and Teignmouth caused by unstable cliffs and not the sea.
  • Raising the height of the wall by 2.5 metres will not prevent sea spray. (Waves do not wash over the line despite urban legend)
  • The heritage and atmosphere of Dawlish needs to be given a higher priority when considering new designs.
  • Funding needs to be announced immediately with preferred plans for resilience.
  • Suitable rolling stock, capable of conditions needs to be secured immediately.