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‘Northern Route’ reopening scheme calls for full funding of Dawlish resilience works

On the seventh anniversary of the collapse of the sea wall at Dawlish, the group of industry experts developing the case for reopening the railway from Exeter to Plymouth via Okehampton and Tavistock (TORS) are calling on Government to commit to fully fund Network Rail’s plans to improve the resilience of the main line from Newton Abbot to Exeter. They add that the reopened ‘Northern Route’ railway could bring forward completion of the programme of works on the coast line.

A combination of the collapse of cliffs at Teignmouth and the sea wall at Dawlish left Torbay, Plymouth, South Devon and the whole of Cornwall cut off from the national rail network for two months in 2014, with economic damage to the region estimated at up to £20 million per day while repairs were made. One of the big challenges Network Rail faces in the long term resilience programme – which could run until the 2070s – is how to carry out the works needed without periodic further closures of the line. Cost-effective works would mean periodic line closures. To avoid a recurrence of the economic damage to the region wrought in 2014, a more costly approach, with shorter closures and less efficient overnight and weekend works, is likely to be needed instead.

However, Tavistock Okehampton Reopening Scheme says that if its reopening is completed, trains from Cornwall, Plymouth and even Torbay would be available, running to Exeter and beyond via Okehampton and Tavistock, maintaining regional connectivity while the coast line is necessarily closed for rebuilding works. This means Network Rail could undertake longer engineering blockades to complete the resilience programme, speeding its completion and saving considerable costs. Just like the rail network east of Exeter, having two routes available makes routine maintenance easier to plan and implement, removing the need for bus replacement services.

TORS director Jim Collins – formerly manager of Plymouth and Cornish Railways– says: “Continuity of service while the coast line engineering works are underway or when serious storms strike at high tides is one of a wide range of benefits the TORS project brings to the region. We shouldn’t let slip the opportunity of the ‘Northern Route’ to ensure the safety and resilience of the South West’s rail connections.”

Fellow TORS director Professor Jon Shaw of Plymouth University – who has studied the implications of climate change on the coastal railway – adds: “In addition to the cliff instability problems at Teignmouth, we know from our studies that the chances of the main line being disrupted by wave overtopping and other problems associated with sea level change will only increase in the coming decades. Finding the way to best guarantee the long term resilience of the Dawlish route as quickly as possible, in the least disruptive manner possible, is becoming time critical.”

Notes to editors

The Exeter-Plymouth via Okehampton and Tavistock railway closed as a through route in 1968, with stubs retained from Exeter to Meldon and Plymouth to Bere Alston (for the Gunnislake branch) to serve local communities and businesses. The passenger service from Okehampton to Exeter is expected to be reinstated this year.

Tavistock Okehampton Reopening Scheme CIC (TORS) is a formal body set up by members of the expert Northern Route Working Group, which has spent the last year examining the case. All work has been done on a pro bono basis to develop the case for a Strategic Outline Business Case and further work.

Summary of scheme benefits

  • A huge boost in transport connectivity to Mid, West, and North Devon and North Cornwall, leading to major improvement in social inclusion and access to work and education for those unable to drive or without a car.
  • A permanent and coherent response to the challenge of climate change.
  • Gives Network Rail the ability to close the coastal main line for longer to undertake its long-term resilience programme by diverting trains onto the reopened railway. This capability will make the interventions necessary cheaper, quicker and more effective, providing South Devon and Torbay with a more reliable railway far quicker than if the ‘Northern Route’ was not open.
  • Reduced road congestion and accidents on the A386 road between Tavistock and Plymouth, lower road traffic in and around Dartmoor and fewer lorry movements with potential for freight trains
  • Lower CO2 emissions from transport by operation of electric trains.
  • Opening the full through route will be much more viable economically than operating separate stubs from Exeter to Okehampton and Tavistock to Plymouth. It is the only way the full benefits of serving Tavistock and Okehampton by rail can be realised.

Summary of the scheme

  • Core hourly daytime service to be provided by extension of South Western Railway London Waterloo-Exeter services to run to Plymouth via Okehampton and Tavistock to maximise passenger benefits and reduce additional rolling stock requirements; extra peak time trains possible if needed.
  • Route to be electrified throughout with in cab signalling and engineered to accommodate potential freight traffic which is currently deterred by perceived fragility of the coastal main line and steep gradients west of Newton Abbot.
  • Non-stop journey time from Exeter to Plymouth of 59 minutes; Exeter to Okehampton journey times of c22 minutes; Okehampton to Tavistock of c19 minutes, and Tavistock to Plymouth of c22 minutes.
  • Surge capacity in diversionary mode by ‘flighting’ trains of 3-4 trains per hour max.
  • Double-track railway from Exeter to Okehampton/Meldon, single track (extent to be confirmed in SOBC) through parts of Dartmoor to limit environmental impact; double track from Tavistock to Plymouth.
  • Potential for express connecting bus links from Okehampton serving Torrington, Holsworthy, Launceston/Bude, and Wadebridge/Padstow to provide faster East-West journeys from Exeter and beyond to those places than is currently possible by public transport.
  • Existing Gunnislake and Barnstaple branch services retained in full and enhanced.
  • Potential east-west chord line at Cowley Bridge Junction providing a direct connection from the Great Western Main Line from Taunton to Exeter, allowing trains to avoid congestion at Exeter St David’s station, and opening significant new through journey opportunities.

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