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Rail Services (Exeter to the South-West)

Volume 447: debated on Tuesday 20 June 2006

There is a debate going on in Devon at the moment about who is the greatest Devonian. I shall not take the House along that line; however, a gentleman who was not a Devonian but was born in Portsmouth had probably the most significant effect on the west country and, indeed, other parts of the UK. He was Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who designed and built the Great Western railway. That line brought business and trade to the south-west and later brought thousands of tourists pouring into the beautiful seaside resorts in my constituency—Teignmouth and Dawlish—and those further west in south Devon and Cornwall.

Those who constructed the original line ran across problems. A line of hills in south Devon called the Haldon hills reaches up to the north. They were a barrier to communications between the east and west for years. Indeed, only one or two passable or navigable roads existed over the top of the hills in the last century and the one before. Tunnelling was not uncommon in the Victorian era, but it was considered and rejected. Isambard Kingdom Brunel, in his usual way, took a bold decision, against much advice, to go along the sea and the sea wall, carving tunnels and creating a stretch of track between Exeter through Dawlish and Teignmouth to Newton Abbot.

Problems arose immediately afterwards, because of cliff falls on to the track. Other difficulties included waves occasionally breaking over the wall. In the last century, the rail companies and British Rail considered alternatives and in the 1930s came up with an alternative route, to cut inland, tunnelling under the Haldon hills and coming out over the beautiful little village of Bishopsteignton on a big viaduct, then travelling down into Newton Abbot. That scheme was rejected on the grounds of cost. It was decided then that the problems on the sea wall were not insurmountable and that the cost of coming inland was too great.

Today the same problems exist. They include a crumbling cliff face and problems with waves and storms breaking over the railway line. I recall from my early days living in Teignmouth—we moved from Exmouth to Teignmouth—that I had been up in London and was travelling down one night during a great storm. The train was held up at Dawlish while the storm broke over. Track men worked on the line to keep it open in fairly hazardous conditions. I clearly remember what it is like to be sitting in a static train with the waves breaking over the carriage. Shortly afterwards we arrived in Teignmouth; I met my wife and we had a pleasant evening.

During the 1990s other storms and flooding caused further problems, but many of those attributed to the section of track that I am talking about had nothing to do with that section. Many of the delays in the 1990s were to do with a bridge east of Exeter that was damaged by flood waters coming from Tiverton, rushing under the bridge and damaging its support, or over the track, cutting services from the west to London.

In the late 1990s and in part of the new millennium we have of course seen dramatic pictures of storms, including trains stuck on the track with the waves beating over them. Some of those delays were caused by problems with the track: damage to the rock face and to the surface of the track, particularly where the waves would break over the track, wash the gravel from under it and pull it out. To deal with that, Network Rail has spent a vast sum on securing the rock face and stabilising the track. It had problems with signalling, because the signals were shorting. That problem has also been dealt with and should not occur in future.

There was a problem for which the great storms were blamed which was actually a man-made problem—it was a design error. Virgin Trains had its wonderful new Voyagers, which are beautiful trains. I went on one of the early runs from Paignton to Exeter. It was the fastest run. That was on a clear day, and the trouble was that when the waves broke over and hit the top of the trains, it would bring them to a standstill. There were problems with the electrics and the heating on the trains and with the doors. So we were in the terrible position in which a Virgin Voyager would be stuck on the track for four hours. Often it had to be towed away by a 25-year-old high-speed train belonging to another company, or by one of Virgin’s own. That problem has been resolved. Network Rail has put in a large sum to resolve some of the problems relating to the track and the cliff face, and the design problems that Voyager faced have now been resolved. I hope that the lessons from that have been learned and that new rolling stock will not succumb so easily to the vagaries of British weather.

That prompts the question—one that I have asked many times—what the effect of climate change will be. The Hadley centre, which is part of the Met Office, has made predictions about what the net effect will be in the south-west. A letter from Paul Hardaker of the Met Office says that

“the Hadley Centre model from 1860-2100”

gives a rise

“of 0.4 metres. About 0.1 m of this has already occurred so we expect a further rise of 0.3 m over the next 100 years.”

It goes on to say that a further study

“showed that by 2080, assuming a medium-high emissions scenario, a further 0.3 m sea-level rise and including land movement, that the 1-in-50 year highwater event will increase by about 0.5 m around the S. Devon coastline.”

Some people have concluded from that that it is all up for the line: it will no longer be sustainable.

Indeed, if we were to read The Observer—my paper of choice on a Sunday—from a few weeks ago, we would believe that the line is in imminent peril and threat of closure because of climate change. Nothing is further from the truth. The sources quoted, by the newspaper, by other campaigners and by Members of this House have not quoted but misquoted both the Met Office and Network Rail. The Met Office has been clear. It has said that the line may have to close if we do nothing, but as the gentleman from the Met Office said to me last week when I visited it, “Actually, if you do nothing, the railway will have to close anyway because even if there were no climate change or rise in the sea level, the current storms would close the line for you.” Maintenance is a factor of that railway, one that was recognised by the builders of the rail line and by British Rail when it rejected the inland route. It is certainly recognised by Network Rail today.

The Met Office view is not that the rail line must close but that Network Rail must consider what it needs to do to keep the line open. The Met Office is fairly indignant that it has been quoted as saying that the line is not sustainable. It says that its job is not to tell other bodies whether something is sustainable, but to give advice about the effects of climate change, as the Hadley centre did in the case that I have just quoted.

Network Rail was also quoted, particularly in The Observer, which implied that £200,000 was being spent on the line every year, and that it was not sustainable. Network Rail says that that is not the case; it has not concluded that the line cannot be sustained. Indeed, I have a memo here in which Network Rail says that it has

“invested £9 million in the last few years to stabilise and manage the historic coastal route between Teignmouth and Dawlish Warren”

and that

“Network Rail has no plans to re-route the railway line at Dawlish in the foreseeable future.”

It goes on to say:

“We do, however, remain alert to the issue of climate change and coastal defences and continue to play an active role in the local coastal group led by the local authority and funded by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs…to discuss the affect of climate change on transport systems.”

I shall come on to some further quotes that touch on what is being done in that respect.

The regional development agency has also, although it has not supplied any quotes, contacted me to say that it is supportive of a proper debate on the issue. However, at the moment it sees no reason why we should presume that the line has to close. I was told this morning that it had carried out a consultation among local people, and that they do not want the route to change; indeed, they do not want the service to change. I hasten to add that we should interpret that to mean that they do not want the service to be cut. It goes without saying—if the rail companies are listening—that most of us in the south-west would like it to increase. Basically, local people find the existing route satisfactory. So they should: some 67 trains a day travel up-line and a further 67 travel down-line. It is a fairly busy stretch of line.

I hope that the Minister will continue to support that rail link with the south-west. If the campaigners were to have their way, what would happen? Currently, 69,175 people a year board the train in the little Exe estuary village of Starcross. Further down the line, at Dawlish Warren, where there is a wonderful bird sanctuary, 69,707 passengers use the train every year, as do 297,836 passengers from the town of Dawlish, further still down the line and famous for its black swans, and 319,075 passengers from my home town of Teignmouth. The immediate effect of closing the line would be to close those stations, and to prevent local people from having access to the railway. They would have to either use their cars or take buses into Exeter or Newton Abbot.

Closing the stations would not just inconvenience commuters; it would have a damaging effect on local businesses and on the hotel and holiday park trade in Dawlish and the hotel trade in Teignmouth. One hotel in particular relies heavily on the rail service. The Clifden hotel in Teignmouth is run by Action for the Blind for people who are partially sighted. I am told that 70 per cent. of its customers use the train. Those customers would have to stop at Exeter and then be collected and taken to the hotel. It would be a great inconvenience if the customers had to arrange that themselves, and it would be a great cost to the hotel if they had to start transporting people in from Exeter, some 14 miles away. If the closure itself were not damaging, the talk that the line is unsustainable is itself damaging to Dawlish, Teignmouth and that part of the south Devon economy. People believe what they read in the papers and think, “There’s no future here. There’s going to be no rail line. Why should we invest here? We might as well invest in those areas where we are certain there’s going to be a rail link, rather than one where there might not be.”

Finally, if the line were closed, would the sea wall that currently runs along there be maintained? Certainly, there would be no reason to maintain certain sections of it, and we would then see coastal erosion, denuding, and threats to properties high up on the cliff. The cost of keeping the line open is not just the cost of doing so, but Network Rail is keeping the properties above safe. A new line would cost in excess of £100 million. That is an awful lot of money. Are we saying to the campaigners who want to close the line and commit to a new line that we are going to commit £100 million plus, which might not be necessary? Network Rail is very aware of the issue. It has undertaken its own one-year study into the effects of climate change on the rail network, and is doing a particular model on the track at Dawlish. There are eight studies currently being carried out on the impact of climate change on the railway line along that section. Would it not be better to wait until those studies are completed before we rush to any decision? I believe that, in this case, waiting is beneficial. The sea change, as I said earlier, takes effect over a 50-year period, so there is no need to rush today. The line is one of the most beautiful stretches of railway in England, and to me, one of the finest in the world. The question that we should be asking is not when we close the line, but how we can keep it open.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Illsley. The hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) concentrated on the area around Dawlish and the sea wall there. However, I should like to say a few words about the Greater Western franchise, which covers the area. If I mispronounce any of the names, I apologise. There are some beautiful-sounding names, but coming from the north, I may not always get them right, so I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will correct me.

As we know, the Greater Western franchise has now started and it has not been without controversy. First, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. We are seeing significant investment of around £200 million in trains, stations and improved performance. Network Rail will be spending in the region of £765 million on the investment programme on track and infrastructure. The first phase of the new integrated control centre has recently opened, so we are seeing closer working relationships between Network Rail and First Great Western to bring about the performance improvements that we want to see in the Greater Western franchise.

This is obviously a very large and complex franchise serving a significant area of the west of the country. As I said, it has not been without controversy: I have attended a number of debates in Westminster Hall and elsewhere about the changes that came about, but I am pleased to say that the Department has been working with First Great Western, which has already announced a number of improvements and changes to services. The changes are significant responses to the consultation and a real improvement that should meet the aspirations of those who have raised concerns.

It is important to stress that significant investment is still to go into the Greater Western franchise, which will bring about improvements for all passengers who use its services. That fits in with the Government’s overall aim to continue significant investment in the railways—more than £87 million a week is being spent this year. There is also a record investment in rolling stock and there were more than 1 billion passenger journeys again last year. There is improved performance overall nationally, exceeding the public performance measure target of 85 per cent.—we reached more than 86 per cent. Reliability and performance are therefore improving. That is borne out by passenger surveys, which show that about 80 per cent. of passengers are pleased with their journeys and that an increasing number are satisfied with the punctuality of trains. Many improvements are happening, and working together with the industry we can further build on them. There are still many challenges to be addressed, not least capacity in some areas, but overall it is a good news story for the railway.

I am conscious that concern has been expressed in the south-west that the Exeter to Newton Abbot line is vulnerable to storm damage where it runs along the sea wall in Dawlish, and that in the longer term the route might cease to be viable because of the rising sea level due to climate change. I shall address those issues, which the hon. Gentleman raised from his own experience and knowledge of the area.

The section of track in question is on the main line to Torbay, south-west Devon and Cornwall and provides those areas with their only rail link with the rest of the country, as the hon. Gentleman made clear. It lies between the sea wall and an 85 m-high cliff face and is one of the most exposed stretches of line in England. Maintaining services can be challenging in extreme weather conditions. We have heard some descriptions of such conditions and we have recently seen dramatic pictures in one of the Sunday newspapers. In October 2004 the sea wall was damaged and the route had to be closed for several days. Less severe disruptions happen more regularly, such as the slow running of services during storms to ensure safety.

Network Rail is aware of the importance of the stretch of track and has undertaken substantial work to improve the reliability of services. Some £9 million has been invested over the past few years, including money to strengthen the foundations of the sea wall. About £500,000 per annum has been spent on maintaining the sea wall. Five Network Rail employees work on the relevant section of line throughout the year, and regular weather updates are provided by the Met Office to help anticipate likely problems.

Network Rail says that it is ever alert to the potential problems from global warming, and I have recently commissioned a research study on its likely longer term effects on the network. Dawlish Warren is a case study. Network Rail recognises the importance of the line and continues to devote considerable resources to maintaining it to an appropriate standard. It does not believe that the railway sea defences in Dawlish are likely to fail in the foreseeable future, thanks to the work carried out and the ongoing maintenance and monitoring.

There have been suggestions that an alternative rail route avoiding Dawlish sea wall should be constructed. There are two possible options, each with disadvantages in the places served. The first is to reopen the former Southern Railway main line along the northern edge of Dartmoor from Okehampton to Bere Alston, rejoining the existing main line in the western suburbs of Plymouth. The service would not serve Dawlish, Teignmouth, Torbay, Totnes or Ivybridge and would be about 50 miles in length. At the east end the line is used by the Dartmoor Railway between Crediton and Meldon Quarry, where passenger trains have been reintroduced, although there is no regular year-round service. The middle section between Meldon and Bere Alston is either completely disused or used as a cycle route, and we understand that the track bed has been built upon in at least one location. There are proposals to extend the cycle route, and ownership of the track bed is in a number of hands; much work would be needed to reopen the line. However, the line between Bere Alston and Plymouth is open and used by regular passenger trains; it is part of the Tamar Valley Line.

Secondly, reopening the former secondary line from Exeter to Newton Abbott that goes through Chudleigh—closed almost 50 years ago—which joins the existing main line, would not serve Teignmouth or Dawlish. The route would be only 15 miles long, but the track bed has been lost in many locations and it would be difficult to reinstate.

We are not aware of costings having been undertaken for those proposals. They were not considered as part of the Greater Western route utilisation study published in 2005. I hope that I have reassured the hon. Gentleman about the viability of that part of the line.

Specifying a new franchise as large and diverse as Greater Western and balancing the needs of the taxpayer and the user is a complex task. Overall, I reiterate that the new franchise is a good deal, with all passengers benefiting from the investment of £200 million for improving trains, stations and performance. We are now immersed in the process of replacing the south-western franchise, and we recently published our consultation on the cross-country franchise—as we did for the east midlands and west midlands franchises—and we will listen carefully to rail users before finalising them.

We are mindful of the vulnerability of the rail route west of Exeter, and the Department will continue to work closely with Network Rail to assess the level of risk and how it can most appropriately be mitigated, and, if necessary, to assess the viability of alternative routes. Given what Network Rail has said about its commitment to maintenance and the fact that it regularly has a number of employees working there, it does not see a significant problem in the immediate future. I hope that I have offered the hon. Gentleman some reassurance.