Call to build new Plymouth to London train line away from the coast
A TRANSPORT expert is calling for work to start on Westcountry rail links that were scuppered by Hitler 73 years ago.
After train services to London were twice cut in the past week, Neill Mitchell is urging the Government to look again at plans for a new railway line avoiding Dawlish, which were drawn up before the Second World War.
"It is simply not acceptable for the 21st century business, freight, tourism and leisure rail service in the peninsula to remain dependent on a solitary 'fair weather railway'," he said.
The rail line between Exeter and Newton Abbot was shut this week after a major landslip at Teignmouth followed by 14 smaller landslips on the route.
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But the route's weakest point, and the cause of regular disruption, is the stretch along the sea wall at Dawlish.
Mr Mitchell said the problem was made more pressing now that Plymouth and its hinterland, with a combined population of about 400,000, had lost its direct air link to the capital.
He is calling for the Government to start by "drawing a line on the map" for a line which avoids the sea wall at Dawlish.
Plans for a "Dawlish Avoiding Line" were put forward by the Great Western Railway (GWR) in 1935 at a time when another Conservative-dominated coalition National Government was wrestling with the impact of global economic recession.
Mr Mitchell said GWR had planned a new line from Dawlish Warren to Newton Abbot "in minute detail, down to the level of drainage culverts and pedestrian accesses".
In 1936 Parliament approved a railway almost nine miles long from Newton Abbot, deviating near the rail bridge over the Hackney Canal Channel, and rejoining the main line north of Dawlish Warren station, alongside the River Exe Estuary.
A second Act in 1937 extended the route further northeast, past Kenton and Powderham, to Exminster, adding just over seven miles.
Surveying began early in 1939, and work was intended to be complete by January 1941. But in September 1939 Hitler invaded Poland and war broke out.
Nationalisation of the railways in 1947 was the death knell for the improvements.
Mr Mitchell said that re-routing of the main line away from the Dawlish sea wall would cost considerably less than the present Reading Station re-configuration scheme.
He called for strategic leadership from the new Cornwall and Heart of the South West Local Enterprise Partnerships together with Network Rail, the Department for Transport, the universities and the peninsula's MPs.
He said 21st century tunnelling economics and techniques could allow a more direct route, to high-speed rail standards, between Exeter St Thomas and Newton Abbot, via or beneath Haldon.
The existing scenic line along the sea wall should stay open to accommodate weekend engineering work diversions, local shuttle services and for its tourism potential.
Although rail services continued along the former LSWR/Southern main line to Waterloo via Okehampton until 1968, Mr Mitchell said this was not a suitable alternative to the Dawlish line because the bulk of Devon's economically productive population was along the southern route.
But he said it should brought back into use to reconnect West Devon and North Cornwall and to give Plymouth direct access to London Waterloo."
Meanwhile Gary Streeter, the Conservative MP for South West Devon, is calling on Network Rail to make repairs to the Great Western mainline a national priority.
"It's obvious we are not going to get electrification in Devon and Cornwall for many years therefore we must have urgent investment now in making our existing line more resilient and robust," he said.
COUNCIL CALLS FOR RAIL LIFELINE TO BE A PRIORITY
PLYMOUTH’S rail ‘lifeline’ should be a national priority, the Government is being told.
After rail services were disrupted by floods in the past week, council leader Tudor Evans is demanding action to keep links to the peninsula open, whatever the weather.
City MP Oliver Colvile has also raised the issue in the House of Commons this week.
And a transport expert has renewed calls for a new line to by-pass storm-hit Dawlish.
Last week’s floods cut the rail link between Exeter and Tiverton and passengers were ferried between stations by bus.
The rail misery continued this week when the line between Newton Abbot and Exeter was closed by 15 landslips.
Now Cllr Evans is co-ordinating a letter from South West leaders to the Transport Minister.
He said the Government was committing huge investment to improve transport in areas of the country that are already very well connected.
“Is it too much to ask for tracks that allow train services to get to a chosen destination without the use of a bus?
“The South West has suffered from severe travel disruption. Not only do we find services suspended, but the replacement bus services themselves were delayed by flooding on the M5.”
Signatories to the letter include Cornwall, Devon and Somerset council leaders, the Mayor of Torbay and the chairs of the Cornwall and Heart of the South West Local Economic Partnerships.
Cllr Evans said: “I understand we were dealing with extreme weather this time, but this isn’t a new issue and flooding happens all too frequently.
“We know where flooding is likely and we know there is a Government plan to tackle such issues.”
The Government’s 2011 document “Climate Resilient Infrastructure” features on its front cover a photo of the line at Dawlish, where services are frequently disrupted by weather.
Cllr Evans said: “We are striving for economic growth in the region and have some excellent plans in place to create jobs and encourage businesses to the area including the South West Marine Energy Park.
“The Government recognises the economic value of fast, reliable transport links.”
He is calling on the Government to give the South West some priority. “The DIY approach we are often forced to take just won’t cut it in this situation. We need investment in our travel infrastructure to enable us to deliver growth.
“The South West can no longer be viewed as the sleepy tourist destination of the UK. We will be asking to meet the Secretary of State for Transport to seek the necessary infrastructure needed.
“Unlike his Transport Minister, who did not travel to Exeter on Thursday, we are prepared to take the long and torturous journey to Westminster to move this agenda forward.
“We’ll be keeping up the pressure on Government so they understand the transport issues that threaten our ambitions for growth in the South West.”
Mr Colvile, the Tory MP for Plymouth Sutton and Devonport, raised the issue at transport questions in the Commons.
He called on Transport Minister Stephen Hammond to make an economic assessment of the impact of that on the Plymouth economy?
Mr Hammond said: “I recognise that it has been extremely disruptive, but it is too early to undertake an economic assessment.
“The Government’s main priority at present is restoring services to all those affected by flooding.”