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Exeter to Plymouth Railway

Volume 518: debated on Wednesday 10 November 2010

During the next 10 to 15 minutes, I shall speak about the south Devon railway line. It is close to my constituents’ hearts, and I am clearly looking to the Minister to support continued investment in it.

The line goes from Exeter to Plymouth, and part of it goes through my constituency. It goes through Starcross and down the coast through Dawlish and Teignmouth. From there it divides, and goes on either to Torbay or Plymouth. It is one of the most picturesque stretches of railway in Europe; indeed, it is a tourist attraction in its own right.

The line is hugely important to the Devon economy for two reasons: because of the role it plays in supporting tourism, and for its role in helping my constituents to commute to work and back. In my part of the world, public transport is important, as it is a very rural community. The Minister will be delighted to hear that the more rail travel we have, the smaller will be our carbon footprint, so I hope to achieve some support in that regard.

I shall dwell first on the economic value of the line and explain how important it is for Devon. Tourism accounts for 7% of the Devon economy, a substantial part. We have 5.3 million visitors a year, which is no mean feat. Teignbridge, the part of my constituency through which the railway runs, is the second most important destination for tourists. As a result, it is no surprise that 30% of the local work force are engaged in tourism or related industries. While tourists are in Devon, they spend in excess of £2 billion a year. That is a significant sum.

I turn to the commuting element, and the economic and environmental benefits of the line. The Minister may be surprised to learn that 2 million people used that line during the last 12 months. Indeed, Network Rail’s estimate is that we will see 19% growth over this year and next. It has been identified as one of the fastest growing lines.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, and I congratulate her on securing this debate. I give her my support and the support of all Members of Parliament who represent Cornwall.

All trains from Paddington to Cornwall use this line, but we in Cornwall are even more remote and peripheral to the UK than Devon. The line is vital to us, and it should be protected and upgraded, especially given the environmental problems that I hope my hon. Friend will mention. The line is important not only for Devon, but will play an important role in the future economy of Cornwall.

I thank my hon. Friend for that valuable contribution and for the support she offers.

As I said at the outset, I am seeking the Minister’s support for continued investment, and I shall explain why. During the last Parliament there was a House of Commons inquiry into an alternative inland route, which resulted from concerns about the viability of continuing investment, given the coastal path that the route takes. The inquiry findings were made public in February this year; its view was that, at a cost of £100 million, it simply was not viable. We now have a new Administration, and I therefore seek an assurance that the Government see the coastal line as a priority. That is particularly important as it will allow Network Rail and the Environment Agency to plan for the future, and it is clearly important that such planning be put in place now.

Why is it important that we plan now? It is important because, as many will be aware, this line has its own challenges, which are not new. They have been well rehearsed; indeed, the matter was last debated in 2006. The main challenge is this: as a coastal line, it is inevitably affected by erosion and a rise in sea level. The line follows 13 miles of tidal water, four of which are aligned with or cross open sea. The Met Office prediction is that sea levels will rise by 0.32 metres over the next 100 years. That may seem a lot, and we need to plan now because of the consequences.

Another factor needs to be taken into account. The Minister may know that the UK is on a tilt: the south-west is tipping into the sea, and the north-east is going the other way and rising out of the sea. As a consequence, the south-west is sinking by between 5 mm and 10 mm a decade. We need to consider what has to be done sooner rather than later.

I have discussed the problem with Network Rail, the body responsible for maintaining the line. It is more than happy—it believes that it is viable—to continue investing £500,000 a year to ensure that the sea wall remains rugged and fit for purpose. However, when looking forward to 2025, it believes that more investment will be required. If we are to make that further investment, we need to consider its quantum and what sort of disruption would be caused to local businesses, tourists and commuters, as we need to manage the process in a sensible way.

In my discussions, I have discovered two problem areas. One is in Dawlish Warren, where there has been consistent erosion; the sand has moved, to the benefit of Exminster and the detriment of Dawlish Warren. The Environment Agency’s position is that we can hold the line, but come 2025 it believes that managed realignment will be needed. What will happen then, and what will the cost be? The second difficult area is Powderham bank. As the sea level rises there, the wetland will begin to disappear. We need to ensure that we still have the wetland, with its birds and wildlife, which means we will have to create a causeway for the railway line. The appropriate spot for that is Powderham bank, but significant engineering problems and costs will need to be evaluated.

We need a shoreline management plan, and the Environment Agency is responsible for ensuring that it is in place. As expected, it has developed an overarching coastline strategy. It has been diligent in renewing groynes and gabion defences. Recently the Environment Agency spent £100,000 on emergency repairs and, as we speak, is considering putting sand deposits on to Dawlish Warren to deal with the erosion problem. However, there is a challenge in getting agreement between all the interested stakeholders in Shoreline Management Plan 2, as it is called. That plan was discussed before the election, and was put on hold as we moved towards the election. Post-election, it is to be re-visited. There is a meeting in two weeks’ time of the western structure team, at which Teignbridge district council, the Environment Agency, English Heritage, the Countryside Council—indeed, all parties—will be present. My concern is that at that meeting there needs to be a real focus on what the priorities should be. That is why I would like the Minister’s assurance that the priority is to ensure that line continues to run.

Therefore, I am looking for three things: a statement on the Government’s behalf that it is their priority to keep the line running; confirmation that there is no plan to resurrect a debate about the alternative inland route at a cost of £100 million; and for the Minister and the Government to direct Network Rail and the Environment Agency to work together to find a way forward, putting this route and its long-term viability and infrastructure at the heart of the plan going forward. I might be so bold as to suggest to the Minister a time line, because I am conscious that with a plan and a time line, we will have a result. I suggest that in the rail regulatory period 5, running 2009-14, the Minister propose that the group look at putting in place a proper plan and implementing proper consultation, because the changes required in 2025 will have significant local implications. I then suggest that during rail regulatory periods 6 and 7, which run from 2015-24, we look at the design and the building of the work that needs to be put through. The Minister will already be well aware that the Government are committed to a high-speed train between London and Torbay; indeed, that starts next month. I hope that, given that commitment, I and others can expect support for this line. Otherwise, it will be a wasted investment.

In conclusion, I want to make clear on behalf of my constituents and those of adjoining constituencies how important this line is to the local economy of Devon and Cornwall and to the south-west in general. I make my case to the Minister on our constituents’ behalf that this line needs to be protected and to have continued investment. We need confirmation that this is a priority line that will receive direction from the Government and, where relevant, funding.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot (Anne Marie Morris) on securing the debate. She set out with great clarity the importance of the Exeter-Plymouth railway line to her constituency and the south-west in general. I welcome the opportunity to reassure her that the issues she raised about the route’s long-term resilience are being taken seriously by the rail industry and the Government.

The Exeter-Plymouth railway line is of great importance to the economy of south Devon, Torbay, Plymouth and whole of Cornwall. It makes a significant contribution to tourism in the area. I am sure that there are many people whose first glimpse of the Devon seaside came from the window of an express train as it hugged the coast on the line between Exeter and Newton Abbot.

The line is also important for people getting to work and college, and also for the businesses that rely on it to maintain efficient contacts with the rest of the country. However, as my hon. Friend notes, its proximity to the coast is the line’s Achilles heel, and it has been subject to temporary closures from time to time. Network Rail is responsible for the operation, maintenance and renewal of the rail network and it takes very seriously the long-term resilience of the network in the face of climate change.

It falls to Network Rail to continue to monitor the likelihood of risks to the safety and operational integrity of the railway in the Dawlish area and to propose further appropriate measures of protection from flooding and coastal erosion. Network Rail is fully aware of the importance of the section of coastal main line between Teignmouth and Dawlish Warren. I understand that around £9 million has been invested in recent years to maintain the integrity of the sea wall and the stability of the cliff face. Network Rail does not believe that the railway sea defences in the Dawlish area are likely to fail in the foreseeable future, thanks to the works carried out and ongoing maintenance and monitoring.

Network Rail advises that it spends around £500,000 each year, as my hon. Friend notes, on maintaining the sea walls and estuaries. A dedicated contractor work force is based at Dawlish. The sea walls are subject to an enhanced structural maintenance inspection regime, with an additional post-storm element, to ensure railway safety and performance, and to target resources at where the risk is greatest. Weather forecasts and tidal predictions are monitored, and when the combination of events reaches a pre-determined level, additional inspections are undertaken.

The implications of climate change will stretch into the long term, however. On 16 September, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs responded to a report published by the adaptation sub-committee, which was set up as a result of the Climate Change Act 2008. She said:

“Although we need to bring down greenhouse gas emissions internationally and to drive down our own emissions at home, we need to mitigate and adapt to the potential consequences of climate change. This is one of the key priorities contained in the coalition agreement.”

This is a challenge that Government must rise to, but they cannot do it alone. Transport infrastructure providers need to recognise both the economic and social necessity of taking steps to protect the areas for which they are responsible.

Network Rail has been taking action for some time. It is working with the Met Office by using its data to help to stress test thousands of miles of rail tracks, embankments and bridges to determine whether they can stand up to the patterns of extreme weather predicted over the coming decades. The process is not cheap. The investigation itself will cost around £750,000, but when Network Rail points to such early action leading to savings of around £1 billion over 30 years, the work starts to look incredibly good value for money.

This new piece of work builds on an earlier technical study undertaken by Network Rail and the Rail Safety and Standards Board in 2008. The railway lines adjoining the Teign and Exe estuaries and the south Devon coast were used as case studies, and the conclusions suggested, not surprisingly, that the frequency of disruptions along the main line was likely to increase over the next 70 years as sea levels rise.

Network Rail has therefore identified that there is a problem—not just in south Devon but on other parts of the network—that needs to be addressed. The Department for Transport is funding a major research project with Network Rail to understand the impact of climate change on the railway. The project has already identified wave over-topping and flooding at defended coastal and estuarine railways at Dawlish as a priority. The next phase of the project will provide the quantified evidence needed to decide where and when investment may be needed to maintain the resilience of the railway to increasingly extreme weather.

No conclusion has yet been reached on what mitigation measures might be required to minimise the risk to the rail network from rising sea levels at locations along the coast and river estuaries. Nevertheless, along with the key objective of protecting the railway, its users and properties adjacent to it, it must be a priority to maintain access by rail to the areas of south Devon and Torbay.

My hon. Friend asked whether keeping the line running was a priority, and I hope I have answered that question—it is. Do we see it as the main line to Cornwall—this point was also referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton)—in the indefinite future? Yes, we do. I will turn briefly to the question of whether we intend to resurrect the debate about an alternative route. A number of suggestions have been made about building alternative routes away from the coast or reopening former railway lines such as the Exeter-Okehampton-Tavistock-Plymouth line. As I have pointed out, any solution cannot ignore the needs of south Devon and Torbay, so reopening that line alone would not meet one of our key objectives. That is not to say, however, that if the line were to open, it would not be welcome. It would be welcome but, in our view, it would not be a substitute in any shape or form for the main line along the coast.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot also mentioned CP5 and the considerations for 2025, which she identified as a key date. I undertake to pass on her comments to the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers), so that she has them in mind as she discusses the contents of CP5 with Network Rail.

I am encouraged that Network Rail is engaging with other organisations to tackle the issue and taking it very seriously. My hon. Friend the Member for Newton Abbot referred to the Environment Agency, which has a key role to play. To meet her suggestion that we direct Network Rail and the Environment Agency to find a solution, I will be happy to write to them following the debate to stress the importance of maintaining the line to the economy of south Devon.