Adrian Sanders writes from the cut-off far South West

Three big issues face the South West and the future of its rail links to the rest of the country.

The first big issue is resilience east of Exeter. What we do west of the city is irrelevant if we cannot get beyond Taunton in the north and Crewkerne in the east.

Being cut off at Exeter for the second year running presents an opportunity to focus on what is in all our best interests and that means reliable, faster and greater capacity services to and from the West Country.

The Government has already given the go-ahead for the electrification of the line between Paddington and Bristol and Reading and Newbury. Our task is to remind the powers that be that there is life south and west of these soon to be electrified lines and they ought to be extended in our direction.

Crucially we should argue for the electrification of the line from Newbury to Exeter with the potential of reducing journey times into Paddington by 45 minutes. Plymouth makes great noise about wanting journey times under 3 hours, electrification can bring Plymouth to London in under 2 and a half hours with no loss of services to other communities along the route.

We should also make the case for duelling the second line out of Exeter to Salisbury to increase capacity and run express services to Waterloo only stopping at main interchange stations rather than everywhere. This could create real competition for passengers and put pressure on our very high fares to and from London.

The second issue must be to protect life, property and the economies of the communities along the Dawlish line. The railway line protects the banks of the Exe and Teign estuaries as well as flood defences along a four mile stretch by the sea. Take away the rail line and you have over 12 miles of infrastructure the taxpayer will still have to maintain. The loss of tourism trade, while most acutely felt at Starcross, Dawlish Warren, Dawlish and Teignmouth, will also impact on reduced numbers of day trippers to Exeter and visitors to Torbay’s many attractions..

Keeping the Dawlish line as our main line is also crucial for the thousands of people who commute between Exeter, Newton Abbot and Torbay to and from the stations in between. The repercussions economically and environmentally do not appear to be fully understood by those who advocate a new in-land line, even one that retains Newton Abbot as a main station.

The third issue is to ensure the costs of improvements do not fall on rail users. The people who travel by train are not the only beneficiaries of rail transport and few other countries of the world expect those who use public transport to meet the full costs of its provision. Fares to and from the West Country are already the most expensive on the network and must not rise in the future on the back of new investment.

If we can get a long-term solution to protect the coast-line and allow a railway to continue to run on or alongside it we can turn our attention to a relief route for those few days this stretch of rail requires maintenance. Talking about such alternatives now is a massive distraction from the opportunities the current problems present to get a railway serving the West Country that is faster, more resilient, has greater capacity, and doesn’t disadvantage any community currently served.

* Adrian Sanders is a Focus deliver in Paignton, Devon, and was the MP for Torbay from 1997 to 2015.

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  • The elephant in the room here being the fact that it all comes out of the public purse in one way or another, through subsidies or fares, so why not renationalise it?

    Why will none of the major parties talk about renationalisation, when it has widespread public backing and when public ownership works very well in countries like Switzerland? If it works there, why can’t we do it here?

  • Toby Fenwick 10th Feb '14 - 3:35pm

    I agree with all of this – repair Dawlish, continue electrification to the SW (with additional savings from avoiding the expensive bi-mode Intercity Express (IEP) trains, and fund it centrally – but this has to go hand in hand with an alternative route to Plymouth when Dawlish is next closed due to weather or engineering. The old route via Okehampton and Tavistock requires about 15 miles of reinstated track, and also open up better connections to north Devon and Cornwall, as well as providing an alternative route to Plymouth and beyond.

  • As the MD of a Plymouth based business this was all so predictable – in fact on this site in January last year I mentioned a “track about to fall into the sea”. It’s not just with rail transport we have infrastructure issues. We lost our airport in 2012, we have appalling roads from Exeter West and East (especially over holiday periods) and our communications infrastructure costs far more than it does in other parts of the country.

    We have satellite offices in Swindon and Oxford and provide services nationwide. If it wasn’t for the fact that myself and the other owners of the business are committed to Plymouth we would have moved years ago and the local economy would have lost the benefit of dozens of jobs. It’s ridiculous that leased line communications are almost twice as expensive in our headquarters than anywhere else we do business. In times of ever tighter margins we will soon start to lose out in competitive tenders to those that do not face such obstacles.

    Travel within Devon is also problematic, try getting from Plymouth to Barnstaple or Ilfracombe. We often service clients in these locations from Bristol.

    On Thursday I will be dropped to Exeter Airport (taking my assistant out of the office for at least 2 1/2 hours)and then catch a Plane to Manchester, I will then need to be picked up by a (diverted) colleague to attend a meeting in Preston. Sadly I fully expect to be doing this again ad infinitum over the next few years whilst listening to all the wonders HS2 will bring to the economy as a whole. I wait to see whether I will get a refund on the Train ticket purchased for the journey irrespective the cost will run into hundreds of pounds….

    Devon and Cornwall, indeed the wider Westcountry, deserve better infrastructure, but if we cannot get it when the Tories and Lib Dems are in coalition (between them they hold most seats) then I really begin to doubt it will happen at all. Instead we will see more companies close and those that do relocate or establish stop at Exeter with the decent train service and motorway network.

    I understand Adrian’s feelings on the Dawlish route and the impact on the local economy if it is lost. However, we cannot have a continuing situation where trains are often delayed by the sea state and South Devon and Cornwall remain at risk of another extended period with no service at all when the weather really plays it’s joker. If we do not start some serious infrastructure investment this region will end up like parts of Southern Spain, with little or no industry and overly reliant on Tourism. Still at least it will be 20 minutes quicker from Birmingham to London!

  • ” It’s not just with rail transport we have infrastructure issues.”

    Niggly point here, nothing personal, but I always find it really grates when people use the word “issues” as a euphemism when they really mean “problems”.

    The point is, if we are going to put public money into our infrastructure, why are we going to let private companies make profits out of it?

    This has happened on the West Coast Mainline, where Virgin took all the credit for massive public investment, and it is set to happen again on HS2.

    For sure we need a sustained and even larger programme of public investment in infrastructure. But are people willing to pay the higher taxes necessary to do so?

  • I’m not sure whose typo it is, but it’s “dualling”, not “duelling”. Please delete this comment once the typo’s been fixed. If it’s Adrian’s, do let the guy know.

  • Mark Townend 10th Feb '14 - 6:07pm

    A new inland route bypassing the Dawlish sea wall need not mean the end of the coast route, rather it would allow longer distance express services between the south west and London and the North to routinely use such a shorter faster route, and to continue running completely unaffected by any future sea wall damage. The sea wall route retained only for slower local, freight and excursion traffic could be simplified, taking out one track along the most exposed section and allowing the battered outer platform and associated buildings and footbridge at Dawlish to be removed. Between Exeter and Newton Abbot, the line is fairly congested today with capacity constrained mainly by the journey time differential between local stopping trains and non-stop expresses. Retaining the coast route together with a new route would increase capacity greatly by allowing stopping pattern segregation, with expresses on the new route being able to overtake locals on the old one. In the case of future sea wall damage only local services would be affected and shuttle services could be set up from Newton Abbot to Teignmouth and from Exeter to Dawlish Warren, leaving only Dawlish isolated on bus links. I have sketched an idea for a fast direct route from Exeter to Newton Abbot, partly following the old Teign Valley route at its extremities, but with a new shorter cut-off including significant tunnels under Haldon Forest. The proposal can be found here:

    Such a new route would take many years to plan and construct, which might mean that the Okehampton route, if it could be opened quicker, might be a better short term bet, but that would not improve journey times to Plymouth and beyond and would introduce awkward reversing and doubling back at Exeter and Plymouth for trains heading to Cornwall, so for the Great Western it would be most of use as an emergency diversion rather than a regular express route, although there could be significant value in the route as a local link connecting the communities en route to both Plymouth and Exeter and perhaps further afield if incorporated as an extension of the Waterloo-Exeter service.

    I think a time saving of 45 minutes from Plymouth to London is a bit optimistic for electrification without construction of a new High Speed line as well, but my shorter cut-off to Newton Abbot could save up to 10 minutes which with perhaps another 10 from electrification leading to a regular sub-3 hour Plymouth journeys whilst retaining calls at Totnes and Newton Abbot.

    Mark E Townend – Torbay Resident

  • @RC
    Not sure I would agree with you on the problems / issues language usage.

    1.2 issues.. Problems or difficulties especially with a service or facility

    You say potato ….

    But on your substantive point, in the Westcountry we already pay more for train fares, I pay the same road fund license as those that are better served, and our communications cost more (for less service). Should we pay more tax, probably, should the tax we already pay be more fairly spent to give equality of access to adequate infrastructure, definitely.

  • I’d prioritise the redualling over the electrification. It would give Waterloo a competitive service straight away, possibly tempting the franchisee (currently South West Trains, but who knows?) to run through-trains to Plymouth again.

    If you electrify Newbury-Exeter, then the competition between the electric service from Paddington and the diesel from Waterloo will be over before it starts – the electric trains will win, easily. Redualling Exeter-Salisbury won’t enable Waterloo to compete with an electric train from Paddington; there will be about a 90 minute time difference to London. You’d have to electrify Exeter-Basingstoke too to get a level playing field.

    Far better to have a big project to electrify the whole of the mainline in the SW, all the way to at least Plymouth and possibly Penzance, and also to improve line-speeds all the way along.

    As for Dawlish, we have to rebuild the sea wall anyway; the other alternative is abandoning every town on the coast from the Teign to the Exe. Once we’ve rebuilt the wall, why not put the track back on top? Tavistock-Okehampton isn’t a particularly useful diversionary route: it will take about 30 minutes longer for Exeter-Plymouth than the current mainline, and doesn’t serve any of the current stations in-between. It’s mostly useful as a new route, serving North Devon and NE Cornwall; places like Launceston and Bideford can drive to Okehampton and park-and-ride to Exeter or Plymouth and as a back-up route for Plymouth and Cornwall. It’s no use for the rest of SW Devon. Newton Abbot to Exeter via Plymouth would be about a two-and-a-half hour train journey on days when Dawlish is out of action, which is obviously impractical, compared to the 19 minutes of the train through Dawlish, and the 40 of the replacement bus running at present. That doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be built – if trains were still running from Cornwall and Plymouth, there would be far fewer people affected by the Dawlish collapse than there are now.

    When it comes to the major works involved in electrification from Newbury (and/or Basingstoke), that’s when to look into improvements west from Exeter – a modernised version of the Dawlish Avoiding Line proposal from the 1930s would make a deal of sense, because electrifying the Sea Wall would be completely insane. Electricity and sea water don’t mix. Dawlish itself would be served by a new station on the inland side of the town; only Teignmouth would lose a direct rail service in the 1930s proposals, but the route could be modified to go to a station on the inland side of Teignmouth , and possibly add a local station in Kingsteignton too.

    Improvements on the Newton Abbot – Totnes-Plymouth mainline would be in order as well when electrifying; it really shouldn’t take 56 minutes to cover the 52 miles between Exeter and Plymouth in an express train capable of 125 mph. For comparison, Milton Keynes-Coventry is about the same distance (48 miles), and takes 29 minutes. Indeed, the whole of the mainlines south of Bristol need looking at, which is why I was suggesting a big project across the whole region, rather than doing it piecemeal – like the Northern Hub work which is electrifying much of the North over the course of five or so years.

  • Michael Widger 11th Feb '14 - 10:24am

    Naturally Adrian Sanders is batting on behalf of his constituents, but the South West does not end at Torbay. The Exeter to Plymouth line has been totally inadequate ever since it was built in 1846/49 – it is indirect, slow, has ferocious gradients,sharp curvature and increasingly prone to the elements. It has been a constant source of trouble, with several breaches over the years. If you live in Cornwall you can have an extra hour in bed and still catch the Paddington train by driving to Tiverton Parkway. The ideal solution would, of course, be a new high-speed line roughly following the A38 but that would require some hefty engineering and unlikely to happen anytime soon. The Teign Valley line is a complete non-starter being only ever a lightly constructed branch-line and the formation is now obliterated by the A38
    at Chudleigh and the A30 at Ide.The ‘Southern’ route via Okehampton can be realistically achieved with most of the formation intact and will provide a back-up in the event of disruption at Dawlish. Tavistock and Okehampton have virtually doubled in population since the’ axe’ in 1968 and 1972 respectively so re-opening is a good idea in any event.I was also heartened by the positive reaction from the Dartmoor National Park Authority suggesting it will help ‘green’ tourism. The line between Lydford and Okehampton is Devon’s very own ‘Settle and Carlisle’!

  • I think Adrian is a little unclear just what exactly he is arguing for. Electrification, faster trains and increased capacity have zero impact on resilience of the rail links. However, I agree with Adrian that simply reinstating the current trackbeds isn’t sufficient and that with the media (and political) focus on the West Country, now is the time to put a sensible plan on the table and get it funded.

    Firstly, to summarise the main events of last week:
    1. Bristol to Exeter: track blocked by flooding where it crosses the river Parrett on the Somerset Levels.
    2. Paddington via Castle Cary and Taunton to Exeter: track blocked by flooding at Athelney on the Somerset Levels.
    3. The line between Exeter and Salisbury via Yeovil: blocked by an embankment landslip at Crewkerne.
    4. The line between Exeter and Newton Abbott: trackbed washed away by the sea at Dawlish.

    The net effect of the first two was to severe all rail connections north out of Taunton,the third the alternative route out of Exeter, With the last severing all connections south west of Exeter. The expectation is that Network Rail will return all of the above lines to service sometime this year, although it may be months before services resume north of Taunton – assuming the embankments haven’t been too badly damaged by the flooding.

    So the real problem is determining what needs to be done to mitigate the known risks to rail services and address those. I suggest the two areas that need to be seriously reviewed with respect to resilience are:
    1. The routes across the Somerset Levels
    2. The Dawlish estuary and coast route

    The lines across the Somerset Levels are highly vulnerable to flooding, both tidal and fluvial – the current floods only cover about 10% of the Somerset Levels, the 1919 floods covered about 40%, climate chance and rising sea levels are significantly increasingly the risk of tidal flooding in the coming decades. The upgrade of the Exeter to Yeovil line to permit full mainline operation into London and to south coast destinations, would also seem to provide a good alternative to depending upon being able to cross the Somerset Levels. The Dawlish route has always been problematic, with services being subject to sea conditions and the trackbed vulnerable to adverse sea conditions, which seem to be occurring more frequently. Hence whilst it is the current mainline, it doesn’t really satisfy the criteria for a mainline.

    Hence I suggest the priority isn’t electrification but increasing trackbed resilience and route reliability. For the lines crossing the Somerset Levels this could mean rebuilding the line on much higher embankments and/or viaducts. For the Dawlish line, however, things are not so simple. Hence the need to invest in an alternative ‘bad weather’ route, which raises the question what is needing to be connected to what; something Adrian avoids.

    I suggest the what’s are Plymouth to Exeter and London, building on Exeter’s junction status. However, as Adrian points out in his second issue we need to take into consideration the modern economic needs of the area, hence I suggest any solution must both improve services and add routes to the existing rail infrastructure. I’m ignoring Cornwall here, because the question is whether Cornwall is best served by the existing line via Plymouth or a new line from Exeter broadly following the A30, by improving the resilience of infrastructure and hence reliability of services to Exeter and Plymouth, we rule out neither of these options.

    The key is to note that in “Keeping the Dawlish line as our main line” it is not necessary for all mainline services to use that line (there are plenty of examples of this elsewhere in the country). Hence, to my mind the best option is to complete the construction of the Exeter to Newton Abbot, Dawlish avoidance line that received parliamentary approval but construction was curtailed by WWII in 1939. I accept this will probably be quite disruptive as much of the land was sold off by BR in the 50’s and 60’s. By retaining the Dawlish line, this would allow for slightly quicker through trains to Plymouth, whilst permitting an enhanced local service.

    The other alternatives to the Dawlish line that are getting press, namely the Teign Valley Branch and re-instatement of the LWSR mainline via Okehampton, also require some new land and routing as the trackbeds are now incomplete and don’t seem to fit the requirement for a true mainline (the Teign valley branch is single tracked and the LWSR whilst double tracked is a long way round and can be badly affected by snow). However, the rebuilding of these lines and particularly the LWSR could be beneficial to the region and it’s tourist industry, particularly if the Dartmoor railway were permitted to operate ‘heritage’ trains over the route.

    I disagree with Adrian, now is the time to evaluate alternatives and present a viable long-term solution, given that none of the identified alternatives are likely to be operational within the next 10 years. Also we have a funding opportunity for rail infrastructure. Given the worsening state of the rail infrastructure across the country due to the effects of recent weather and ground water levels, the government is likely to be presented with a dilemma: either make cuts to fund essential infrastructure repair or delay HS2 for a few years and use the £2Bn pa released to fund the work; once the government fully commits to HS2 this funding option will no longer be available.

  • Long term resilience to the Dawlish coastal problem is the answer.

    In the short term, the reinstatement of the Okehampton to Bere Alston route should be positively considered. The course of this line would provide an interim relief route between Plymouth and Exeter.

    In the longer term and a more practical solution would be a twin-track tunnel under Halden from a point just south of Exeter to a point South East of Newton Abbott would provide positive resilience. The distance between the two points is approximately eight miles. I mention this as a tunnel is the most environmentally-friendly solution and would provide the minimum of disruption to local road traffic. When completed it would provide a high speed alternative route and journey times towards stations further east and west would be improved.

    Maybe, it’s the West Country and South West peninsula that requires a brand new high-speed route rather than the proposed HS2. Just thought I would mention that the Dutch have introduced some high-speed routes like the new 60-mile Hanzelijn Line that was completed in 2012, so why can’t we?

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