Storms and bad weather

Senior Network Rail man Robin Gisby noted on February 6’s Today programme: “It feels like we’re having 1-in-100 year events every year or so.”

With the battering Britain and its railways have taken from storms over the last couple of months, it’s easy to see why. Dawlish is the most high-profile example but it’s by no means the only section of line that’s been blocked by poor weather and storms over the past few weeks.

Dawlish

This is an elevated view of the damage at Dawlish following this week’s storms. Picture: NR.

Dawlish is expected to take several weeks to repair but NR is to put temporary repairs in place to protect the site against storms coming this weekend. Those repairs will use a concrete spraying machine that’s been working at Whiteball Tunnel.

Elsewhere, NR expects to open the Cambrian Coast line as far as Barmouth, having repaired the line through Tywyn that was damaged in storms in early January. Trains should be running from February 10.

Tywyn

Repairs underway on the Cambrian Coast route towards Pwllheli. Picture: NR.

It may yet be May before the line fully reopens back to Pwllheli. NR still has storm damage to repair but it’s a project to build a new bridge at Pont Briwet that will keep the line closed. Here NR has admitted that piling work for the new bridge has affected the structural stability of the old one. This has caused NR to close the bridge to trains.

In Southern England, NR has repaired its Dorking-Horsham line through Ockley, allowing a full service to run once more. One track was closed following a landslip on Christmas Day. The embankment has been strengthened with a steel wall and over 4,000 tonnes of material dropped into place.

Ockley landslip

Network Rail and BAM Nuttall repair the embankment at Ockley, on the Dorking-Horsham route. Picture: NR.

Finally, in Northern England, the Cumbrian Coast line reopened in mid-January. NR had to repair sea defences between Sellafield and Maryport and replace 600 yards of ballast that was washed away at Parton and Kirkby-in-Furness.

Track washed away at Flimby-2Ballast washed away at Flimby on the Cumbrian Coast. Picture: NR.

Do we really need the ‘Withered Arm’?

Destruction of an 80-metre section of sea wall at Dawlish has reopened the debate about the merits of finding an alternative rail route into Devon and Cornwall. The obvious alternative is the ‘Withered Arm’ via Okehampton.

Bft38VlIcAALrtrThe sea wall breach at Dawlish did not just leave Network Rail’s tracks hanging, it also swept away a road and came close to damaging houses. Picture: @SuptArmes

My former RAIL Magazine colleague Andy Roden is spearheading a campaign to reopen the Withered Arm, which is the old London and South Western Railway route that runs inland around Dartmoor. Both ends of the route exist as branches (Plymouth-Bere Ferrers/Gunnislake and Exeter-Crediton-Okehampton/Barnstaple). However, there’s a 20-mile missing section between Meldon and Bere Ferrers.

The route was a victim of the 1960’s Beeching closures but there’s already a well-developed plan to reopen five miles of the western section to restore Tavistock to the rail network. That leaves 15 miles from Tavistock to Meldon Quarry. From Meldon eastwards through Okehampton the line is privately owned by the Dartmoor Railway. It switches back to Network Rail ownership at the former Coleford Junction.

In total, the ‘Withered Arm’ distance between Cowley Bridge Junction (Exeter) and St Budeaux Junction (Plymouth) is 54 miles. This compares with 57 miles via Dawlish but the ‘Arm’ has very low line speeds, 30mph, compared with the Dawlish route’s 60mph. (Speeds do vary and Pacers can run faster than 30mph on the ‘Arm’.)

Aside from the engineering needed to reopen the Withered Arm, planners must also consider the route’s likely traffic. Currently the eastern branch has 14 trains per day (Exeter-Barnstaple) and the eastern line has nine (Plymouth-Gunnislake). Tavistock is clearly worth serving and Okehampton could provide traffic despite it already having a dual-carriageway link to Exeter. But the case for reopening will be far stronger if the line can support itself on its own merits and not simply as a diversionary route should trouble revisit Dawlish.

Campaigners will need to be careful that the debate does not move to become ‘either/or’ for there are many more communities along the main route through Dawlish. There’s Teignmouth, Newton Abbot, Torbay, Totnes and Ivybridge to be considered. It’s clear that if these communities are to continue to be properly served, then the line through Dawlish must remain and must be repaired. If it’s to be repaired, and surely strengthened to counter severe storms, then do we really need the ‘Withered Arm’?