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Railways: Dawlish

Volume 795: debated on Wednesday 6 February 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress has been made in improving the resilience of the railway line at Dawlish towards south Devon and Cornwall since the two-month disruption beginning on 5 February 2014.

My Lords, Network Rail has worked to develop long-term solutions to make the railway at Dawlish and Teignmouth more resilient to extreme weather, engaging an expert team of tunnel, cliff and railway engineers. This is part of a £15 million investment provided by the Government. The first phase of work to protect the sea wall began in November, with essential repairs now completed to four breakwaters. Following engagement with local stakeholders in autumn last year, Network Rail has now submitted plans for a new, stronger sea wall at Dawlish.

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply, and am sure the House will wish to congratulate Network Rail on the way it recovered from that terrible accident five years ago where the track was waving in the air with nothing underneath it. However, is the Minister aware that already this winter services have been disrupted on 10 occasions—sometimes because the tide is just over the tracks and the tracks are buried? One solution might be for the Secretary of State to play King Canute, but I am sure he would not want to do that. The alternative is to encourage Network Rail with some funding to go ahead with the issues that the Minister mentioned. Also, will she start looking at the process of reopening the Okehampton-Tavistock line, to provide a better service to Plymouth and Cornwall for when the line by the sea is disrupted?

I join the noble Lord in congratulating Network Rail and the orange army who did such a great job of recovery after the storms more than five years ago. We have been clear that ongoing investment in the south-west transport infrastructure is a key priority, and we remain determined to find a permanent solution for Dawlish. As I said, £15 million of funding has been made available, and world-leading engineers have been carrying out detailed assessments. Network Rail is making good progress on its plans, and we are considering them carefully.

On the noble Lord’s point about the regular Okehampton service, we are working closely with the local councils on that. We responded to the future of the Great Western franchise consultation last August, and are looking into what scope of work will be needed to reinstate regular services on that route.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is not just the track that has been a problem, but the trains? Does she agree that the wretched Voyager trains used on this stretch of line are completely unsuitable for the journeys they undertake daily? Cancellations and short running take place every week, and as the 40 year-old British Rail-built high-speed trains are now coming off lease, why do the Government not modernise them and replace the Voyagers with properly built trains that would be far more comfortable for travel between Aberdeen and Penzance than the toy trains there are at present?

My Lords, the noble Lord is right to point to the issues we have had on that track: when there are high waves and sea spray close to the track the Voyager trains cannot run, as they have brake resistors on top. CrossCountry is working to assess whether there might be engineering solutions that would enable the Voyager class to operate through Dawlish in those challenging conditions. We are also looking into providing further additional rolling stock, but the Government and franchise operators are investing heavily in new, improved trains.

My Lords, the economies of west Devon, Plymouth and Cornwall rely very much on this line. Last autumn a six-foot hole appeared under the track in the Dawlish area, so this is far from solved. Yet, despite Devon and Cornwall—regrettably—being stuffed with Tory MPs there seems to be no real action at all. Can the Minister give us a date when the fundamental structure, whether it is the line that the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, refers to or the sea wall, will be completed? When will something be done?

My Lords, this train line has been a long-standing problem ever since it was opened in 1846—that year trains failed to run along it. We are working closely on that and although I am not able to give the noble Lord a date, we are making significant progress. Network Rail has submitted a plan that we are looking at carefully and we hope to make an announcement on it very shortly.

First, in very bad weather, as has been said, the Voyager trains used by the CrossCountry franchise are often unable to operate west of Exeter, as electrics on the roofs of the trains are adversely affected by salt water coming over the sea wall in the Dawlish area. Will the new Hitachi trains being introduced on the line also be adversely affected by salt water coming over the sea wall? Secondly, Network Rail’s plan for preventing sea damage is, as has been said, to build a new, higher sea wall, in respect of which it has made a planning submission to the relevant local authority, with the knowledge of the Secretary of State. We know the problem is only going to get worse as sea levels rise, so what happens if that planning application is declined? What is plan B? Or is there no plan B?

The noble Lord is right to point to the issues we have with CrossCountry trains. The new intercity express trains on GWR were also affected by weather along the Devon coast last week, so we are working very closely with Hitachi to find a solution. As the noble Lord pointed out, there is a planning submission in play and, as I said, we are absolutely determined to come up with a long-term solution to this problem.

My Lords, will the Minister clarify whether she thinks the only long-term solution is to have an alternative line from Exeter to Plymouth? Otherwise, we are perpetually trying to put right something that she acknowledges has been inappropriate since 1848.

Since 1846. The case for reopening the former route between Exeter and Plymouth via Okehampton and Tavistock was assessed by Network Rail in 2014. It found that there was not then a case for reopening this route in its entirety. We are doing work on that: Great Western Railway has been asked to develop proposals to reintroduce regular services between Exeter and Okehampton; and Devon County Council is progressing work to develop the case for reinstating the railway between Bere Alston and Tavistock. Delivery of these schemes may enable the full reopening of the former route in the future, subject to a viable business case being demonstrated.