February 6, 2014 11:02 pm

Historic rail line damaged by storm threatened with closure

A huge waves break over the railway in Dawlish, causing damage, where high tides and strong winds have created havoc in the Devonshire town©PA

Waves pound the rail line at Dawlish in Devon, the seawall of which was designed by Brunel in the 1840s

The threat of future storm damage could spell the end for one of the most spectacular stretches of railway in the country as ministers consider axing part of the Great Western line severely damaged by the sea in Devon and reopening an alternative, inland route closed as part of the Beeching cuts of the 1960s.

Patrick McLoughlin, transport secretary, will arrive in Dawlish today to see at first hand the damage wrought by waves which swept away a seawall designed by the Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel in the 1840s as part of what was then the South Devon line.

Network Rail has estimated it will take a least six weeks to reopen this section of the railway, with the damage much worse than originally feared. It is in discussion with the Ministry of Defence about bringing in troops to help with the rebuilding work.

The disruption means there are no direct rail services to London from west of Exeter, with passengers having to make the journey by road.

Mr McLoughlin told parliament yesterday he would conduct “a more rigorous review of some of the alternatives that may be available” in the long term.

Local MPs have contrasted the estimated £100m-200m cost of recreating an alternative route with the £50bn estimate for the HS2 rail project.

Gary Streeter, Tory MP for Southwest Devon, said: “My constituents have pointed out that we are spending £50bn on HS2; if it is a few 10s or 100s of millions to keep our region connected to the rest of England it will be worth it.”

My constituents have pointed out that we are spending £50bn on HS2; if it is a few 10s or 100s of millions to keep our region connected to the rest of England it will be worth it

- Gary Streeter, MP

Two options are under review, including a route closed as part of the cuts approved by the transport minister Richard Beeching in the 1960s. That would take trains from Exeter north of the Dartmoor National Park via an existing line to Okehampton and then by a rebuilt 20-mile section down to the Tamar Valley line and into Plymouth.

However, large sections of the land that the old line was on have been sold to third parties. Houses have also been built on parts of the old route.

The new route could mean that some communities, including Dawlish, would lose train services if the coastal line were to be closed.

A government source said it was still “early days” and too soon to say whether the coastal line would remain in place if the new route was built.

Another scheme, which would also cut off Dawlish by rail, would involve building a new line across country between Exeter and Newton Abbot, which used to be linked by a branch line.

The stretch of line at Dawlish does offer exceptional views but during particularly stormy weather this section must be shut, sometimes for several days.

The reopening of a line closed by Beeching has a recent precedent. In 2011, the government approved a £250m scheme to rebuild part of the “Varsity Line” which ran between Oxford and Cambridge until it was closed in 1967.

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