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Dawlish Rail Study Ignores The Facts

December 22, 2015

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.

  1. December 22, 2015 3:36 pm

    “Isostasy” is the process of the forces of buoyancy and gravity in which the plates will adjust vertically until balance is reached. When massive weight forces, such as lakes or glaciers, depress an area, there will be rises or tilts in other areas. We are seeing the isostatic effects following the interglacial retreating of ice following the last glacial episode. The rising of the landmass formerly depressed by the ice sheets tends to tilt other areas downward. Ergo, the “rising” of the ocean levels along some coastlines which is actually the sinking of the land.

  2. December 22, 2015 3:39 pm

    “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.”

    It really annoys me when people claim that the sea level is rising, when it is partially land sinking. I learned at school that the south is sinking and the north is rising due to the melting of the ice sheets but it seems that people keep “rediscovering” that fact.

  3. John Moore. permalink
    December 22, 2015 4:24 pm

    QV —- yes, quite right…when the Thames Barrier was built (1985 I think) by the old GLC it was because the SE of Britain was slowly sinking and the far North was rising. This had nothing to do with Scottish politics…

  4. December 22, 2015 4:29 pm

    Thanks, Paul.
    We are witnessing lies being repeated thousands of times. Are these lies becoming part of our lore?
    Your good efforts to keep us informed during 2015 are much appreciated.

    Merry Christmas!

  5. December 22, 2015 4:43 pm

    In general, what people don’t get about sea levels is that daily tidal range is already many times bigger than anything that could happen to sea levels in the next century, i.e. typical ranges are 3-6 feet and in many cases over 10 feet.

    Issues with land subsidence, storm surges and so on far out-matter the minuscule yearly sea level rise – which shows no acceleration once you strip out the contribution from groundwater (adding to the levels now) and impoundments (subtracting back in the 50s-70s).

    Bottom line: if your building is threatened by a 1-foot sea level rise that might happen in the next hundred years… it was in the wrong place to begin with.

  6. Young John permalink
    December 22, 2015 5:40 pm

    When misleading assertions like this are made – and there are many – is it standard practice to contact the writer (in this case the eminent professor and the newspaper) and put them right? If not, why not. If it is done is there never a response which could be published here?

    • December 22, 2015 6:09 pm

      I frequently contact people (when they make their email address public) who make statements on the radio etc. asking for evidence but rarely get a reply.

      An example today was a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration (IOM), who said today that “Many people are moving now because of climate change” on the World at One.

      • December 23, 2015 10:09 am

        I asked Leonard Doyle for actual evidence and this is the best he could come up with.

      • saveenergy permalink
        December 23, 2015 10:50 am

        But that’s the BBC ….so you know it’s not true !!

      • December 23, 2015 10:59 am

        Strictly speaking it’s the “International Organization for Migration (IOM)”
        but then they have a vested interest in “talking up” the issue.

      • saveenergy permalink
        December 23, 2015 11:01 am

        From your link-
        “In Haiti, IOM found that seasonal migration is a successful adaptation strategy.”

        Much like the hop-pickers in Kent & the Eastern Europeans in Lincolnshire fields, brought in to clear up the extra biomass stimulated by increased CO2.

      • December 23, 2015 12:20 pm

        I particularly liked:

        “In Micronesia, a recent IOM survey revealed that two out of three adults talk about climate change with their families, including the potential impacts on their mobility choices.”

    • January 3, 2016 3:30 pm

      John, you make a good point. As a co-author of the study I have provided some clarifications. All best, Roland.

  7. The Old Bloke permalink
    December 22, 2015 7:56 pm

    I’m predicting (but without any grants from the government) that if the sea levels rose by 24″ much of South Devon (my patch and a regular walker on the sea wall at Dawlish) would disappear. But then, anyone can predict anything. Doesn’t mean to say it will happen.

  8. December 22, 2015 8:54 pm

    Apparently there have been more floods in Cumbria tonight.
    This must have been unexpected as I don’t remember much talk about it this afternoon on the BBC and the “warnings” seem to have come out of nowhere, although I am not sure when they were issued.
    Actually, when I look at the map, most of the warnings aren’t in the lake district.

    • Rowland Pantling permalink
      December 23, 2015 10:06 am

      Weather forecasters appear reluctant to mention the effects of the jet stream which seems to be clearly the culprit for the continuous wet weather we are suffering from. Why is it almost stuck in one position? Is it being manipulated?

  9. Billy Liar permalink
    December 22, 2015 11:10 pm

    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 weather could have

    Fixed it for them.

  10. John F. Hultquist permalink
    December 23, 2015 2:43 am

    Any idea what happened to the rails during the Storm of 1953?

    • jazznick permalink
      December 23, 2015 9:14 am

      The 1953 Storm tried to shove most of the North Sea through the Straits of Dover with devastating results both for the East Coast of the UK and the SE in particular plus the Netherlands.

  11. Jerry Greenwood permalink
    December 23, 2015 7:27 am

    By their reasoning who will want to take the train to a town that will be under water? Why not concentrate their efforts on raising the causeway to St. Michaels Mount so the tourists don’t get trapped by the tide?

  12. December 23, 2015 10:18 am

    The inexorable rise in the level of climate distortion artistry continues like a runaway train.

    But they will have to re-route the Dawlish line sooner or later.

    • John Moore. permalink
      December 23, 2015 11:28 am

      Yes, but there is considerable feeling from Teignmouth and Dawlish residents who don’t want to lose their service. In an ideal situation but a very expensive one would be to build a new short tunnel route for the fast through trains and some on the existing line to serve the two towns. As it happens I live just a few miles inland from there. Newton Abbot is 15 miles from Exeter by road and 21 by rail.

  13. johnmarshall permalink
    December 23, 2015 11:04 am

    Brunell planned to run the route inland but the monied men refused due to cost. Brunell installed groynes on the beach to increase the sand defences. Sadly groyne maintenance has stopped and the beach washed away letting the full force of any storm directly hit the track.

  14. January 3, 2016 11:31 am

    It is good to see that this topic of regional interest is being discussed and, as a co-author of the study, I would like to resolve some misunderstandings. Please note that the study was published as open access and is available for free to anyone who is interested via this link: You and the readers of your blog can read the paper itself, and should not have to rely on newspaper quotes. You will find in the paper a discussion of earlier closures of the railway: “The line, designed by I.K. Brunel who was Engineer to the Great Western and the Bristol and Exeter Railway, opened on 30 May 1846. On 5 October of that same year, breaches to the sea wall were reported and the line was closed, and as in 2014, the track was left hanging in mid-air. Third class passengers not protected by windows were “soaked to the skin”, and Dawlish residents “thronged the Marine Parade at high tide to see the majestic mountains of foam thrown up against the wall’ (The Times, 1846, p5). A temporary fix was achieved using green fir branches laid on top of the remains of the wall, but in contrast to the 2014 incident, the line reopened on 7 October after a blockage of just over 2 days (Kay, 1993).” The point of our paper is that since the 1970s the closures appear to be related to sea-level rise. While sea levels have been rising throughout most of the period (but with decadal fluctuations), historical data show that in the 1970s a ‘threshold’ was exceeded and a relationship between subsequent sea-level rise and railway disruptions can be observed. We used this historical relationship, together with predicted sea-level rise, to estimate future closures. Whereas newspapers tend to quote the high end of our predictions, our paper includes ranges, based on the various sea-level rise scenarios (not only the “worst case”). As for the quotation that in the last 40 years about 10 cm of sea-level rise has occurred in the English Channel, it is worthwhile to point out that this is based on many tide gauges, not just Newlyn and Devonport. But even If you were to perform a linear regression on the Newlyn data ( for the last 40 years (1974-2014), you will find a trend of about 2.6 mm/yr which adds up to a 10 cm, exactly as quoted. This compares to a linear trend of 1.8 mm/yr for the entire period of observations (1916-2014). I would urge you not to use the word “fraudulent” in this context – we are honest scientists (most scientists are!). It is well known that current rates of sea-level rise are not unusual – there have been decades in the last century when rates were similar or even higher. However, the cumulative trend is one of continuing rise, and globally the last 20 years have seen a rate of a little over 3 mm/yr, a near doubling of the 20th century global trend. It is too early to tell whether the recent increase is a true change in trend – we need to wait a few years to be able to test this statistically. Of course an important component of relative sea-level rise (which tide gauges measure) is local land movement, and you are correct to point out that the south coast of Britain is sinking. This will make local sea-level rise worse. Sea-level rise is a complex process with many components, most of which display large spatial and temporal variability. Readers of your blog may be interested in this explanation on “why does local sea level differ from the global average?” (from the IPCC 5th Assessment Report):

    • January 3, 2016 1:51 pm

      Thanks for this Roland.

      It may have been the reporting, but I felt that the claim that “half the sea level rise since 1846 had been in the last 40 yrs” was grossly misleading, and gave the impresssion that the rate of sea level rise has been rapidly increasing in recent years.

      We know from tide gauges around the UK, incl Newlyn, that this simply is not true, and that current rates are little different to what they were 50 or 100 years ago.

      There was a slow down in the 1960’s and 70’s, when NH temperatures cooled, which explains the slightly higher rate you identify since 1976. As you are probably aware, this pattern of faster sea level rise up to around 1960, then a slowdown, then a return to earlier levels is commonly seen on many tide gauges around the world. As the 1960’s and 70’s saw a massive cooling in the Arctic, with big increases in sea ice, that should really be of little surprise.

      • January 3, 2016 3:10 pm

        Paul, thanks for publishing my comment. When discussing the topic of sea-level change, It is important to distinguish between global and regional changes. You are correct to highlight some of the decadal fluctuations of global sea-level change, including the slowdown in the 1960s. However, the statement that in the English Channel about 10 cm of sea-level rise has occurred in the last 40 years (half of 20 cm) is not misleading – it is actually quite accurate (and, as it happens, also not far off the global mean). As for current and historical rates of global sea-level rise, it depends what you define as “current rates”, but published estimates for the period 1993-2010 are 2.8-3.7 mm/yr, compared to 1.1-1.9 mm/yr for the period 1901-1990, possibly representing a small acceleration of sea-level rise (0.009-0.017 mm/yr2), but we need longer records before a robust conclusion can be drawn. These are global rates, and rates at any given tide gauge can differ from the global mean because of a variety of local and regional geological and oceanographic processes (which are explained via the link I provided). There are many recent papers on rates of global sea-level rise in the recent past – the rates I have quoted are from Hay et al. (2015), Nature A useful paper on sea-level changes in the English Channel is Haigh et al. (2009) Continental Shelf Research The paper shows that the high rates of sea-level rise we are experiencing now have also occurred in the 20th century (in particular the decades centred on 1925, 1945 and 1980) and there is of yet no evidence for an acceleration of sea-level rise in the English Channel.

      • January 3, 2016 6:53 pm

        Hi Roland

        I’ve just posted some more analysis here

        Any comments would be welcome




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