Dawlish sea wall from the driving seat by Phil Marsh

Dawlish rail disruption

Published 7th February 2014

Rail disruption around Dawlish since 1852 examined by Rail.co.uk

One of the UK’s most famous railway locations has suffered severe damage in the latest round of storms. The Dawlish sea wall in Devon has been breached and the line, which runs on the top of the wall, may be blocked for up to six weeks. Network Rail (NR) has also said that the line through Devon has been damaged by the storm force winds, heavy seas and flooding in several other locations.

The line has a history of disruption and between 1846 and 1986 it has been completely closed for a total of 45 days but this latest damage is thought to be the worst for a century

When was it closed?

Winter 1846 – 3 days

Winter 1852/53 – 2 blockages of 7 and 3 days respectively)

Feb 1855 – blockage of 12 days continuously (longest in period 1846 – 1986)

Oct 1859 – blockage for 3 days

Jan – Feb 1869 – blockage for 5 days

Winter 1872/73 – 4 blockages of 1 day, 3 days, 3 days and 1 day respectively

Nov 1908 – damage to walkway only

March 1923 – blockage of 3 days

Jan 1930 – blockage of 5 days

Feb 1936 – blockage of 3 days

March 1962 – ballast wash outs, services suspended for several hours, then Single Line Working (SLW) was instituted over the Up line

February 1974 – major damage to down platform at Dawlish station, line completely closed for 2 hours, then up line reopened

Feb/March 1986 – blocked 26/02/86 to 03/3/86 – serious damage to wall at Smugglers Cove. The Up line (eastbound) was still useable for engineers trains (and a few freight services on 1 March only). SLW commenced on 03/3/86 with the Down Main Line (Westbound) remaining shut until reopened on 11/3/86

In the last 20 years, January 1996 saw a major incident when the wall was damaged between Dawlish and Dawlish Warren at Rockstone with further severe damage at Sprey Point. Here, the down line (nearest the sea) was suspended over a washed out void, which reached to sleeper ends of Up line. Both lines closed several days were closed for about a week.

The Winter of 2000/2001 following prolonged heavy rain, saw many cliff falls and again Sprey Point featured with a big fall with the line closed for a few days and some more damage to the sea wall. Railtrack then Network Rail then carried out some major cliff stabilisation work in the mid-2000s at a cost of around £15 million.

It was suggested at the time that the repairs/maintenance of the sea wall may not have been carried out to the best design and that the foundations had not been deep enough or correctly shaped and were undermined.

The Teignmouth Sea Cliffs Warning System was installed at this time and based in Exeter Signalbox. This was activated by rock falls onto a trip wire as in the Folkestone area and in Scotland.

What’s happened this time?

On the coast at Dawlish, around 80m of both tracks has been severely damaged by the sea, washing away ballast and the foundations on which the track is built leaving the line swaying in mid air. There is also severe damage to the sea wall and the track and platforms at Dawlish station. Trains between Exeter and Plymouth have been suspended and engineers are starting the huge task of assessing, planning then implementing repairs. Progress is of course weather dependent for obvious reasons.

NR says that it hopes to complete repairs further west to allow some services to operate between Plymouth and Penzance within a day or two. The line between Exeter and Plymouth will remain closed until further notice and reports suggest it could be Mid March before it reopens.

These problems, as we have seen at Dawlish, are nothing new and stem from unstable cliffs on one side of the line and open sea on the other with the railway running along the revetment in between. In the rockfall of December 1852, passengers merely detrained and walked round the obstruction to the connecting service!

Voyagers sunk by spray

As the railway line is literally built on the sea defences, it often suffers from spray and water damage. In fact, when the Bombardier built the Class 221 and 222 ‘Voyager’ trains, the sea water problem was forgotten and when they were introduced by Virgin on the route just over 10 years ago, suffered from the sea water as the heat diffusers on the roof failed so they had to be modified.

What’s the alternative?

The Beeching cuts and inter-regional rivalry between the Southern and Western Regions of British Rail combined with the Beeching Report brought the closure of the hilly Southern Railway route between Exeter and Plymouth via Okehampton and Meldon nearly half a century ago.

The line still exists to Okehampton and from Bere Alston to Plymouth but there is a gap of around 25 miles of missing railway line should anyone decide to rebuild the line and much of the extant line is privately owned today.

As a comparison, the 30 mile Scottish Borders line being rebuilt between Edinburgh and Tweedbank is being reopened at a cost of £250million. The topography of both lines is comparable.

In 1995 after Railtrack was formed, it was estimated that reopening the seven or so miles of line between Tavistock and Bere Alston might cost £25 million. But todays ever more stringent safety regime (which makes our railways amongst the safest in the world) has inflated the overall cost by up to 40% some estimate.

Who pays?

The railway maintenance and investment policy is decided and applied in five year financial cycles known as Control Periods but the investment calculations may now be altered because of climate change.

Climate change experts suggest that a once on a hundred year storm could now happen every 20 years which could bring a new financial take on railway maintenance and investment policy.

Local economy

But if the, what would be a slower route was rebuilt via Okehampton, trains would still need to run along the sea wall to serve Torbay, Newton Abbot and Totnes. But savings could possibly be made by operating a single line railway instead of a double track using the eastbound track nearest the cliffs.

So it could be a wise long term investment for local authorities and central Government to make as rail use continues to grow. This damage does underline the importance of railways to our economy, nationally and locally, and it is only when something of this magnitude happens that the communities and politicians unite to clamour for the railway to be reinstated.

Network Rail has just agreed a tight budget with the Office of The Rail Regulation for the next five years funding period which commences in April. Network Rail is now officially a Government owned body so the Government could presumably sanction funds for whatever the cost may be.

And finally!

If the old Southern route was reinstated, it would provide also a diversionary route from Penzance to Plymouth to Exeter and eastwards. One bizarre fact would be that trains to Plymouth from Exeter would depart in opposite directions if the line was rebuilt!

Phil Marsh would like to thank former colleagues in the rail industry for assistance with this feature.

Written by Phil Marsh

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