Dawlish Rail Study Ignores The Facts
By Paul Homewood
The Dawlish line, linking Exeter to Plymouth and Cornwall, could be disrupted for more than 10 per cent of each year by 2040 and almost a third by 2100 because of rising sea levels, a new study suggests.
The cost of maintaining tracks and sea defences could also soar as predicted sea level rises, coupled with coastal storms and floods, pose major challenges for rail operators and governments.
The research, published in the Journal of Transport Geography, focuses on the impact of sea level rises on the Dawlish to Teignmouth stretch of the main London to Penzance route, which was closed for two months in early 2014 due to a series of coastal storms.
But academics say there could be similar implications for other vulnerable stretches of railway throughout Wales, South East England, the Cumbria coast and Scotland, as well as internationally in the United States, Australia, India and Thailand.
Jon Shaw, Professor of Transport Geography at Plymouth University, said: “Billions of pounds have been committed to the HS2 rail link, but our predictions suggest that just eight years after its completion, rail users in the South West will be facing a situation where their only service cannot function for 40 days each year. The closure of the line at Dawlish in 2014 was unprecedented, but it had significant knock-on effects for the whole South West in both economic and social terms. It was a demonstration of the threats posed to the region’s infrastructure, and this study is a further reminder of the potential impact future climate change could have.”
The study showed during the lifetime of the Great Western Railway, which was completed in 1846, there has been a 20cm rise is sea levels in the English Channel.
However, almost half of that occurred in the last 40 years, with a direct correlation between that and an increase in the number of recorded line disruptions.
Using that historical data, and predicted sea level rises outlined by the United Kingdom Climate Impact Programme (UKCIP), academics demonstrate that current disruption (a total of 9.6 days per year) could rise by more than 300 per cent (to 40 days per year) by 2040 and up to 1170 per cent (to 120 days per year) by 2100.
And while Network Rail currently spends around £800,000 a year maintaining sea defences between Dawlish and Teignmouth, calculations suggest this could rise to between £5.8million and £7.6million per year by 2040.
It could also trigger a sizeable increase in the amount of compensation paid to train operators and customers, with the research estimating the average annual delay charge to have been £270,000 per year between 1997 and 2009 but potentially rising to £1.1million by 2040.
Dr David Dawson, from the University of Leeds, is lead author on the study. He said: “Our rail history clearly shows the problem is worsening. Defence improvements may be able to improve the situation in the short to medium term but the long-term future of the line is what is really worrying. Coastal transport routes around the globe face similar problems from rising sea levels and we need to think carefully how we adapt to these problems so as not to create further issues for future generations. Studies such as this provide important evidence to start strategic planning.”
The Professor might need reminding that disruption to the Dawlish line is not exactly new!
As for his claim that during the lifetime of the Great Western Railway, which was completed in 1846, there has been a 20cm rise is sea levels in the English Channel. However, almost half of that occurred in the last 40 years, we can let the facts talk for themselves:
Newlyn has the longest running tide gauges in the Channel, just west of Dawlish, and it shows a fairly steady rise of 1.76mm/yr since the start of the record in 1916. Some people might say that talk of the last 40 years is fraudulent misrepresentation.
And as NOAA show, the rate of rise in the last 50 years is less than it was prior to 1970.
Newlyn is about 50 miles west of Dawlish, but even closer is Devonport, although this only has data back to 1962. The gauge there shows no rise at all in sea levels since 1990.
Moreover, the Dawlish part of the coastline is estimated to be sinking by 0.5mm/yr, nearly a third of the reported sea level rise.
Talk of re-routing the Dawlish line inland is nothing new, as The Herald reported in 2012:
A transport expert is calling for work to start on Westcountry rail links that were scuppered by Hitler 73 years ago.
After train services to London were twice cut in the past week, Neill Mitchell is urging the Government to look again at plans for a new railway line avoiding Dawlish, which were drawn up before the Second World War.
“It is simply not acceptable for the 21st century business, freight, tourism and leisure rail service in the peninsula to remain dependent on a solitary ‘fair weather railway’,” he said.
The rail line between Exeter and Newton Abbot was shut this week after a major landslip at Teignmouth followed by 14 smaller landslips on the route.
But the route’s weakest point, and the cause of regular disruption, is the stretch along the sea wall at Dawlish.
Mr Mitchell said the problem was made more pressing now that Plymouth and its hinterland, with a combined population of about 400,000, had lost its direct air link to the capital.
He is calling for the Government to start by “drawing a line on the map” for a line which avoids the sea wall at Dawlish.
Plans for a “Dawlish Avoiding Line” were put forward by the Great Western Railway (GWR) in 1935 at a time when another Conservative-dominated coalition National Government was wrestling with the impact of global economic recession.
Mr Mitchell said GWR had planned a new line from Dawlish Warren to Newton Abbot “in minute detail, down to the level of drainage culverts and pedestrian accesses”.
In 1936 Parliament approved a railway almost nine miles long from Newton Abbot, deviating near the rail bridge over the Hackney Canal Channel, and rejoining the main line north of Dawlish Warren station, alongside the River Exe Estuary.
A second Act in 1937 extended the route further northeast, past Kenton and Powderham, to Exminster, adding just over seven miles.
Surveying began early in 1939, and work was intended to be complete by January 1941. But in September 1939 Hitler invaded Poland and war broke out.
There are certainly sound reasons for re-routing, but these decisions need to be made on proper economic grounds, and not on unsupported alarmist assumptions about what might happen in 50 years time.