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.
The 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’?
Arriving at Newcastle station late last night for the 2115 to London, I was met with a departures board displaying an ominous ‘Delayed’. This was strange because the 2115 starts from Newcastle. The arrivals board gave no hint of any incoming service that might form the 2115.
Some ten minutes or so after its booked departure time, the board flicked from ‘Delayed’ to ‘Arrived’ but there was no train. An announcement revealed that my train was held north of Dunbar. It was stuck behind a freight train that had failed around three hours earlier.
With the help of Twitter and Realtime Trains, I discovered that the 2115 would be formed by East Coast’s 1830 Edinburgh-London, which was timetabled to leave Newcastle at 2015 but had been delayed by 227 minutes by the failed freight. It eventually arrived at Newcastle at 2359 to be cancelled and transform itself into the ‘2115’ and leave at 0003. Now running 168 minutes late, it lost more time to be 191 late at one point. London arrival would be 168 late at 0349, having made up most of the extra delay in the final couple of miles from Finsbury Park.
As happens all too often, passenger information was poor. I heard and saw nothing that would help passengers trying to reach London, while others for intermediate stations to York were directed to TPE’s 2156 Newcastle-Manchester.
National Rail Enquiries was little use. Its Twitter feed took three hours to reveal the failed train.
Finally, I wonder what thought Network Rail gave to Single Line Working around the failed train, using crossovers at Drem and Stenton.
In the three months that constitute Quarter 2, around 122,600 trains ran late as Network Rail posted performance that varied between 0.9 and 5.1 percentage points behind its targets. These figures are from the Office of Rail Regulation and it comments that NR is likely to miss all its passenger performance targets for the year that ends next March.
It’s long-distance travellers that suffer the worst performance. For them, 86.6% of trains run on time, against a target of 92.0%. NR is not the only cause of delay, train operators also suffer from failed trains or lack of crew that leads to delays or cancellations. But NR carries the bulk of delays with ORR revealing that 70% of delay minutes for Virgin lie at NR’s door. For East Coast, NR’s share is 67%. For First Great Western, it’s 56%.
ORR goes on to reveal that NR has massively underspent the funding allowed by the regulator for maintenance and renewals. The figure is now £1.2bn over the first four years of the current five-year control period. It reports an increase of 34% in delays attributed to track faults compared with last year. ORR reckons that the rise in delays can be linked to NR not spending as much as it should to maintain its network.
Yet remember the figure of 122,600 delayed trains? There’s another large number that should be considered. And that’s 148,000. It’s the number of extra services that NR is accommodating nationally compared with the same time period in 2008/09. When you add these extra trains to a huge programme of enhancements (think Reading) and at the same time stir in maintenance and renewals then you find that NR is trying to do more with less time.
It’s a difficult problem and now NR faces being fined by ORR for not delivering the railway it promised for the funding ORR permitted. Or put another way, NR will be fined for not spending quickly enough.
An awards event in Bristol last Friday took me west of Reading on the Great Western Main Line for the first time in many months.
Most recent attention around Reading has concentrated on rebuilding the station. It’s an impressive project that has created a much bigger station (although it’s done little to combat the cold that pervades in winter). There’s plenty of work still to do; witness closed platforms, safety barriers and a collection of plant.
However, it’s now west of the station that should catch headlines today. Network Rail is creating grade-separated junctions to ease the flow of main line trains and allow freight trains to cross under to reach the GWML Relief Lines without creating disruption.
A Network Rail diagram showing how new flyovers west of Reading station will ease traffic flows.
I shouldn’t have been surprised at the progress NR has made over recent months. Since First Great Western vacated its old depot in Reading Triangle earlier this year, NR has been able to push forward with its viaducts, casting reinforced concrete pillars and craning spans into place. The line of pillars stretches westwards, with a gap for the West Curve to sneak past. They follow the route of the old Main Lines while wider track remodelling has allowed just enough tracks to cope with the parade of Great Western and CrossCountry trains, in addition to the many freight services.
Reading West viaduct under construction with the junction leading to West Curve on the left.
Elsewhere on the route west, NR has built a new depot at Swindon for its high-output electrification train that should soon be delivered. Eagle-eyed passengers can spot materials stores dotted along the line, with the most visible at Moreton. Those very sharp of eye will see mast foundations already in place.
Swindon’s high-output electrification depot stands ready to receive NR’s latest hi-tech machinery.
Through all this work, the train operators – chiefly First Great Western – must continue running and doubtless suffer the delays that come to trains in any project such as this. With long-distance performance already suffering, NR must work very hard to minimise the disruption and delays it causes the many thousands of passengers that use this key corridor. Time will tell whether the infrastructure is up to, or up for, this challenge.