Why reopening Okehampton is the only solution - a purely personal view by Philip Shelton.
Photograph of Meldon Viaduct by Martin Cordon, reproduced under GNU Free Documentation License.
As will become clear, I am of the opinion that the only immediate solution to the 'Dawlish problem' is to reopen the former LSWR route between Exeter and Plymouth via Okehampton as soon as possible. Further into the future, when the current cause of concern has been removed, and particularly if the increase in rail travel continues, other possibilities may also be considered. Although not directly affected personally by the Dawlish closure, I have lived in the South West (North Devon) for 67 years and so feel I know it and its people reasonably well.
So what is the cause for concern? It is that for 50 days earlier this year the city of Plymouth, the Duchy of Cornwall, and a large chunk of West and North Devon was cut off from the rest of the rail network. Neither freight nor passengers could access the area by rail, and likewise neither could get out of it. And even within the cut off area there could have been problems. It was rumoured, for example, that there was just one class 66 west of Dawlish to handle all clay traffic, and that if it had failed a preserved class 37 would have had to be hired from the South Devon Railway. The disaster which befell the area was something which should never be allowed to occur again, and while nothing immediate can be done (another 'Dawlish' next winter would have exactly the same effect) it must be done in the minimum possible time. That minimum time will not be achieved if time is wasted considering 'solutions' which cannot be attained in anywhere approaching the time which is possible for an Okehampton reopening.
I witnessed for myself the horrendous effect of the Dawlish closure on two visits to Plymouth during those fifty days. I travelled there in my usual way, a drive to Gunnislake and then the train from there into Plymouth. I therefore saw both the city centre and the station. During a normal midweek day Plymouth city centre has the customary bustle which one would expect in a city of that size, but on those two days it was much quieter. Even worse was the station, which resembled a ghost town. There was evidence aplenty of the 'Dawlish effect'. The small number of people getting on and off rail-replacement buses made it obvious that many people were just abandoning rail altogether (maybe never to return), and taxis were piled up by the dozen outside the station with virtually no chance of getting any business. The worst evidence of all as regards use of the rail service, though, was provided by a Cross-Country train. During the closure, Cross-Country were running three trains a day in each direction between Newton Abbot and St. Erth (remember Penzance station was flooded at the same time). I was waiting for the Gunnislake train when one Cross-Country service pulled out heading west. It was a five-coach Voyager and I was able to count the number of passengers on it. Five, just one passenger per coach. Such personal evidence caused me not to be surprised when the full details of the effect on the area's economy came out later.
This is the situation, therefore, which must not be allowed to occur again. An entire area cannot be dependent for its rail service to the outside world on just a single line which is totally at the mercy of Mother Nature; and it's not just the sea, the cliffs on the other side of the tracks are just as much a danger. Last year Network Rail were convinced that the sea wall had been made 'weather proof'; we all know what an empty claim that turned out to be. And with all the warnings given by research about worsening and more extreme weather in the future any similar claim will be equally meaningless. So what is to be done? By all means keep the present line as the main line in normal circumstances, but there must be an alternative which can be used when things are not 'normal'; an alternative which can also come into its own should the elements destroy Dawlish-Teignmouth completely.
There are three candidates for such an alternative route: reopening the Okehampton route, reopening the former GWR branch line route along the Teign Valley, and the various 'tunnel routes' which diverge from the current main line around Exminster or Dawlish Warren and go inland to some extent or other to Newton Abbot thus bypassing Dawlish and Teignmouth completely. I do not need to go into a detailed consideration of these routes, anyone interested simply has to read the excellent article by Gerard Duddridge in Railwatch no. 140.
A summary of the points made by Gerard does, though, show clearly the 'cons' of the second and third possibilities. The Teign Valley route was only ever a branch line, and proof of the fact that it was not regarded as a suitable diversionary route for main line traffic is that in pre-nationalisation days, when the GWR wished to divert Plymouth expresses because of a closure on their line between Plymouth and Exeter they would 'hire paths' on the LSWR Okehampton route rather than use their own Teign Valley. But even if the line were only to be reinstated as a single-track diversionary route with possibly a local service, Gerard details the numerous problems there would be: some of it now under the A38, a large number of houses built on the track bed or very close to it and the condition of the major tunnel, described by Gerard as 'following the weakest direction of already weak rocks'. Ten years is a minimum timescale for such a line to be reopened to serve a minimum purpose.
The 'tunnel routes' as a single group have the major disadvantage of being completely new, and all the estimates are that by the time the planning and consultation procedures have been gone through to decide which route should be chosen, let alone actually constructing it, it would be at least fifteen years before trains were running on it. How many Dawlish closures might there be in that time? But they also divide into two groups as regards other disadvantages. The two routes under Haldon Hill (and particularly that under Little Haldon) involve lengthy tunnels, adding considerably both to the cost and the construction time. The other routes, proposed by the GWR, but abandoned due to the Second World War, are much closer to the coast, going just behind Dawlish and Teignmouth (and so could serve both), but involve four short tunnels, at the southern end of one of which there is now a huge housing estate which was not there in the 1930s.
So if those are the reasons against the alternatives to the Okehampton route, what are the advantages of the route itself?
Firstly, it is generally agreed that from the moment the decision to reopen was taken, trains could be running within five years, much sooner than all the alternatives. To any doubters, have a look at the Waverley Route reopening. That line has been closed for approximately the same length of time as Okehampton, and from work starting to trains running is going to be less than five years. So merely as a diversionary route, in the event of a Dawlish closure or for any other reason, the line would be available in the minimum possible time referred to in the second paragraph above.
Opponents of Okehampton reopening seem to jump from one reason to another in their attempts to denigrate it, and all of them fail. A frequent starting point is to make it appear (particularly to the non-cognoscenti) that what is being proposed is that Okehampton should take over from Dawlish as the main line for normal services between Exeter and Plymouth. This is not what is being suggested at all, (although in the event of a complete destruction of the sea wall it would have to be). Speed and reversals are the two most common reasons given against Okehampton. I can only repeat the two points I made in a letter published in a recent issue of the magazine Rail. In the days when the stretch from Cowley Bridge to Coleford Junction was part of the LSWR main line the speed limit was 85mph. Today, when it is just part of the Barnstaple branch line, the limit is 70mph. But that lower limit is still 10mph higher than anywhere on the current main line in the 25 miles between Newton Abbot and Hemerdon, 25 miles which would still be part of the GWR route no matter how Dawlish is bypassed. From Coleford westwards there are long straight stretches which could be engineered for 85 or even 100mph. Reversals already occur on a daily basis on the national network with no detrimental effect to the service; numerous Cross-County trains reverse at New Street and Reading, and FGW Cheltenham-Paddington trains reverse at Gloucester. (As a further point, which I didn't make in that letter, rosters could be created on the lines of common practice on the Waterloo and City line where, as one driver brings a train into Bank station, another is waiting at the other end of the platform to take it out after a minimal turn-round.)
A reason for reopening Okehampton against which I think anyone would find it hard to argue is that it could be used as a freight route, its gradients being less fearsome and severe than those on the South Devon banks. Some, however, doubt the likely local passenger traffic which the line would generate. To anyone who knows the area well, and particularly the situation on the local services which currently operate, this is meaningless. Five of the six Devon & Cornwall branch lines were in the top ten routes in the country when listed in percentage increase of passenger traffic in the ten years up to 2012. I could give numerous examples of trains into and out of Exeter being packed to capacity, but such details need not be gone into here. There is no reason to believe that a service opening up a new area to rail travel would be any different. What I was asked to discuss was the effect on the population and economy of the large swathe of the South West which was left rail-less when the Withered Arm withered. If you are unfamiliar with the area get out an atlas and have a look. The railway just serves the south coast in the entire distance between two branch lines which meet the north coast at Barnstaple and Newquay, apart from the solitary exception of the short spur that is the Gunnislake branch line, which only survived through an accident of geography and has gone from strength to strength. This is an area where poverty is endemic, and a major cause of that is lack of employment opportunities, with what employment there is paying wages lower than elsewhere. Plymouth and Exeter are obvious sources of employment, but how can the rural population get there to take advantage of them, particularly the young who cannot afford their own private transport? (An example I was given recently concerned a young man in his early 20s who had scrimped and saved to buy a car in the hope it would open more employment opportunities for him, only to discover his annual insurance cost would be way up into four figures, resulting in him abandoning any thought of both the car and the employment he had been offered in Exeter.) But even for many of those who can afford a car, rail is the preferable means of getting to work in the cities. Given the nature of the South West peninsula, the two major roads (A30, A38) are east-west, so of little use for getting from the 'Okehampton area' into Plymouth, and actually getting into Exeter from either can be so horrendous that it can take longer than the rest of a journey (one reason why services into Exeter are so well patronised, the other being the location of Exeter Central, it really is 'central'). The only reasonable north-south road (A386) becomes clogged as soon as one reaches the Plymouth city limits at Roborough, despite recent improvements in the Southway-Derriford area, (that's one reason why the railway is already planned to be extended to Tavistock). I have even been in a long traffic jam on the way out of Plymouth in the middle of the day on that road.
There are, therefore, reasons both why the 'Okehampton area' deserves a reinstatement of its rail connection, even if just providing a local service, and why it would be successful. Potential local passenger usage (another common argument of Okehampton detractors) is often dreadfully underestimated; think Ebbw Vale. But when it comes to decisions such as should an Okehampton reopening be double-track throughout (as it was originally) there are further matters to be considered. Should the line be built to main-line standard to provide a regular fast service rather than just being a Dawlish diversion? Arguments will rage over whether the LSWR or GWR routes are faster between Exeter and Plymouth, but even if the Okehampton route were to be slower, consider this. By no means all of the travelling public (maybe a majority) are not as concerned about saving a few minutes as rail industry planners (and politicians?) appear to think. Why do so many people use the Chiltern route between London and Birmingham? Come to that, why have all the previously-singled parts of the Chiltern route been redoubled? (And how many times recently has Chiltern been TOC of the Year?) Particularly if Exeter-Salisbury were redoubled in its entirety the South West could have the two main line routes it deserves.
It must be obvious by now that my concern is totally for the 'far South West', basically anywhere west and north of Exeter. I have seen arguments in favour of using 'rail money' allocated to the South West for dealing with the problems on the Somerset Levels and between Yeovil and Exeter, both much needed, but in addition to the alleviation of Dawlish problems, not instead of them. What is the point of getting passengers to Exeter more quickly and securely if the same problems still exist further west? The best example of how little rail investment the South West has received and is receiving is illustrated by one fact. Even when all the recently announced electrification measures have been implemented the nearest electrified line to Devon and Cornwall will still be the third-rail line to Weymouth. The time to consider a further alternative such as one of the tunnel routes will be when electrification to this part of the world is on the agenda. This, or a reopening of the Teign Valley route, would also address the concerns of Torbay, something which, of course, Okehampton cannot do. I regret having to be very cynical here. To quote from a recent Rail editorial, "If this was the South East, and businesses were told that they would be cut off for that period, with no possible diversions built, it would undoubtedly be a political nightmare." Consider somewhere in the South East of a similar size to Plymouth, say Brighton. What would happen if Balcombe Tunnel were to collapse, (which would of course not mean Brighton was cut off by rail, just that its direct line to London was out of use)? My guess is that in no time at all the orange army would be reopening Uckfield-Lewes or boring a new tunnel, rather than just the equivalent of doing a King Canute with rock-filled containers (excellent though that was).
In Network Rail's recently published paper on 'Dawlish options' and in much of the discussion on the topic, concepts such as 'benefit-cost ratio' are thrown around. My thesis is that everything, including cost, pales into insignificance beside the fact that the far South West cannot again be condemned to a repeat of those fifty days in the Spring. And it is not even as if 'net cost' provided evidence against an Okehampton reopening. The total cost to the South West economy during the fifty days has been estimated at £1.18bn, somewhat more than the worst-case scenario (presumably double-track throughout, a new Meldon viaduct and raising numerous embankments) cost of reopening Okehampton, £1.165bn. Think back to when Dawlish happened. David Cameron promised that the government would do 'whatever it takes'. The local populace have remembered that, and will no doubt do so come election time, particularly if there's another Dawlish next winter.
Network Rail options study
Railfuture campaign for Southwest rail resilience