EVER since gales and heavy seas destroyed a section of the sea wall and railway at Dawlish on 5 February, there has been a growing – and in my view, irrational – debate in South West England attempting to link future resilience of railway infrastructure in Devon and Cornwall with the HS2 project.

The controversy was started by the HS2 Action Alliance – which, despite its title, is strongly opposed to the new high speed line – calling on MPs “to lobby the Government for money to be spent on improving existing rail lines instead of on a £50 billion HS2 vanity project that has no benefit to the West Country”.

There is, of course, no relationship between what might be done now to repair and improve the railway’s resilience in Devon and Cornwall and construction over the next 20 years of a new high speed rail system serving substantial populations in the Midlands and North of England.

Plymouth and Cornwall might, temporarily, be cut off from London.  But without HS2, places such as Blackpool and Shrewsbury remain permanently without direct train services … because of insufficient capacity on the West Coast Main Line, which can only get worse in the years ahead according to all the growth forecasts.  Only this week, the Office of Rail Regulation said it expected passenger numbers to increase by 14 per cent between now and 2019, and even with an expected decline in coal carryings freight would go up by four per cent.

Nor should it be overlooked that the two principal inter-city train operators on the East and West Coast Main Lines are regularly at the bottom of the punctuality league – behind First Great Western – because of infrastructure failures that frequently cause significant delays … even after £10 billion of so-called route modernisation on the West Coast Main Line, for example.

All these problems — whether on the West Coast Main Line or on the route along Dawlish sea wall — are matters for Network Rail’s maintenance and enhancement programmes … for which the Office of Rail Regulation has just approved expenditure exceeding £38 billion over the next five years – or more than £7.6 billion a year. Around £12 billion of this — more than £2 billion a year — is allocated to direct network enhancements, particularly electrification. Another £17 billion  — almost £3.5 billion a year — will be spent on maintenance and renewals.

By comparison, the budget for HS2 (before contingencies) is £28 billion until 2033, or just £1.4 billion a year (and even if contingencies are added, the budget is still little more than quarter of what is to be spent each year on the existing network until 2019).

However, rational consideration of such issues seems to have evaded those agitated about future rail resilience in the South West. Certainly, two of Devon’s MPs have got well worked up about it.

Exeter’s Ben Bradshaw, a former Labour Cabinet Minister, has called on all West Country MPs to withhold support for HS2 until the Government gives a ‘clear and binding pledge’ to improve South West train services.

And at Prime Minister’s Questions on 12 February, Plymouth’s Alison Seabeck claimed: “People and businesses are angry. They’re angry because of the excessive costs they see on HS2 when the South West is left without a resilient rail network.”

But, as David Cameron told her: “HS2 is not going to be built at the expense of the West Country.”

And he said funding amounting to £31 million had already been approved for 10 projects to improve rail resilience ‘in the South West’ including at Dawlish and Cowley Bridge Junction, near Exeter.

Since the damage to the sea wall at Dawlish, much attention in Devon and Cornwall has been paid, and publicity given, to the possibility of restoring the former Southern Railway route between Exeter and Plymouth, via Okehampton and Tavistock.

While (even if reopening were to be possible) this might provide a diversionary route, it could not be a complete answer. Even if places such as Dawlish and Teignmouth were at the rump end of a branch line — as some commentators have suggested – how are Newton Abbot and the significant tourism areas of Torbay (Torquay, Paignton) and the South Hams (Totnes, Ivybridge) to be served?

Nor would the Okehampton route be easy to operate, as it would involve trains reversing at Exeter St David’s and reversing again on arrival at Plymouth to go forward to Cornwall.

The city of Plymouth wants a 3-hour journey time to and from London.  That is hardly likely to be achievable using the Okehampton line! Its best use would likely be only as an occasional contingency alternative route between Exeter and Plymouth.

And in terms of resilience to bad weather it needs to be recognized that the old route, which passes high over Dartmoor, is susceptible to being blocked by snow in winter.  Indeed, snow is reported falling on Dartmoor and Exmoor today!

A better alternative, avoiding the Dawlish sea wall, might be to explore the inland route between Exeter and Newton Abbot that the Great Western Railway had plans for, including possible electrification, in the late 1930s – but which came to naught because of World War II.

But then comes the matter of affordability, as any such new or additional infrastructure proposed in Devon would have to pass tough financial tests and show a positive benefit to cost ratio, or BCR.

I doubt this would be easy.

The HS2 Action Alliance has criticized the business case for HS2 — last shown to have a BCR of 2.3 (meaning that for every £1 spent, the economy would benefit by £2.30), which could rise to 4.5 if growth in rail demand continued beyond 2035.

HS2 is intended to serve regions in the Midlands and North that have a population of 13 million and a GVA (gross value added – a key measure of economic performance) of £170 billion. By comparison Devon and Cornwall have a combined population of 1.3 million – 10 per cent of that in the Midlands and North – and GVA of £14 billion … only 8 per cent of the Midlands and North.

Nor should it be overlooked that the Great Western Main Line is already subject to a modernization programme of some £7 billion, including extensive electrification (though not to Devon and Cornwall) and new Intercity Express Project trains – but also not to Devon and Cornwall, which seems destined to be served for some years to come by InterCity 125 diesel trains, now between 30 and 40 years old.

Strange to relate, then, that I am not yet aware of any campaign from Devon and Cornwall for the IC125s to be replaced by IEP ‘dual mode’ trains, which would put the South West on a par with Bristol and South Wales – and could well help achieve Plymouth’s aim for 3-hour London journey times.


  1. I agree with your commentator’s statements that HS2 and Westcountry railway resilience are separate issues, that the Okehampton line could only ever serve as a diversionary route, and that talk of new lines is economically infeasible. I do however, feel that you are ignoring the strength of feeling in the Westcountry when it comes to isolation.
    When I lived in Preston, my native friends could scarcely believe that it was closer in distance to London than my home town of Plymouth, and much closer in terms of journey times. The economy is very weak West of Exeter, partly because of slow transport links with London and the rest of the country. Many people feel that if we are to attract more businesses to locate in this part of the world, improved transport links are a must. It is therefore extremely concerning when our only rail line to the rest of the country is severed for what is estimated as months by Network Rail. As a region that is so used to being ignored and placed at the back of the queue, is it so surprising that our MPs feel compelled to resort to blackmail over HS2 to get our case heard?
    It is often felt that we in Devon and Cornwall are lumped in with Bristol when it comes to transport. Bristol is closer to London by rail than to Plymouth and it is far quicker to get London. In any case, the rail route from London to the Westcountry is not through Bristol, but via the Berks & Hants. As the electrification on this line is only going to the extent of the London commuter belt, can otherwise enlightened commentators please stop talking of the benefits of Great Western electrification to the Westcountry, as these are minimal at best!

  2. The inhabitants and political representatives of the far south-west have much to complain about when it comes to the paucity of investment in the rail infrastructure in the region when compared to elsewhere. Never mind HS2, where are the Devon and Cornwall equivalents to currently funded or authorised infrastructure and service improvement projects like Crossrail, Thameslink, the Northern Hub, East-West Rail, GWML and MML electrification, Kemble and North Cotswold re-doubling, and so on?
    It may be irrational to attempt to link the resilience of the rail infrastructure in Devon and Cornwall to HS2, but it is certainly not irrational to want a fairer share of the tax-payer funded Network Rail budget.

  3. Let’s be brutally honest here – common sense, rational thinking and calm deliberation were long since listed as casualties in the fractious HS2 debate. Anti-HS2 campaigners have absolutely zero to gain from any objective analysis of the case for/against HS2. In stark contrast it serves their purpose to sieze the political momentum provided by any passing event, however transient, to maximise the impact of their message upon a British public largely ignorant of the complex issues surrounding this topic. For example it takes mere seconds to comprehend that the construction timetable (and associated budgetary planning) for HS2 is somewhere between 2017-2033 so of course it has precisely zero influence on the current weather related havoc wreaked upon the classic rail network and attempts to rectify ensuing damage and disruption. That blindingly obvious fact counts for nought however because Daily Mail style tabloid headlines are worth their weight in gold as a mechanism capable of attracting the passing attention of your average (memory span of a goldfish?) British citizen in what has fast become a vitriolic war of attrition between decision makers looking to the long term and impacted communities interested primarily in local property prices?

  4. So the poor people of the West Country are being ‘irrational’ about their being cut off from the rest of the country?,try telling that to a businessman living in Plymouth unable to get anywhere! and why concentrate on one part of the country,whole swathes of the network are down in places.
    Maybe someone should tell ‘NotWorkFail’ that the longer this goes on people will vote with their feet and desert the railway for good as as happened in the past and why the little digs@the two main lines north? got no time for Vermin West Coast,but the East Coast is a good railway so good its being sold off(,why)? and as for HS2 please give it a rest! the one good thing to come out of this weather debacle is people are asking why a railway line costing 40bn and rising is being pushed through regardless,and as a footnote we wouldn’t be in this hole if it hadn’t been for those two industrial vandals,Beeching and Wilson

    • “nd as for HS2 please give it a rest! the one good thing to come out of this weather debacle is people are asking”

      Uhm, no, the one thing that has come out of it is that exactly the same the same people are making exactly the same argument of “Spend the money on X instead” where X is whatever politically opportunistic soundbite they’ve got this week.

      “a railway line costing 40bn and rising”

      It’s not £40bn and it’s not rising. Please do your homework on 50th and 95th percentiles before you repeat anti-HS2 dogma.

  5. I’m seriously tempted to say that the DfT should calculate a business case for a the Dawlish Avoiding Line, and then go ahead regardless of the BCR (which is unlikely to be anything impressive).

    That would nicely wrongfoot HS2 opponents. Either they agree with the Government that BCRs are not at be-all-and-end-all for rail projects (and therefore forfeit their principal argument against HS2), or they stick to their guns about BCR, oppose the new line, and make their supposed position of being pro-local rail a sham.

    • Chris,

      I agree the costs of building the GWR’s long abandoned Exminster to Bishopsteignton avoiding line should be investigated. It’s a given that the current line through Dawlish can’t (SHOULDN’T) be abandoned (tourist destinations, one of Britain’s most scenic lines, etc. – though it could be downgraded to single track with maybe a passing loop around Dawlish Warren to reduce costs) but a new avoiding line should certainly get Plymouth-London times under 3 hours, even without electrification (which would be possible with a new inland route, though I can’t see how that could happen along the Dawlish sea wall).

      The line through Okehampton could never be anything more than a diversionary route due to the added distance/travel time and reversing issues.

  6. Alan Marshall clearly does not understand sentiment in the West Country when it comes to railways. There are few regions of the UK that have seen less investment in recent years than the West Country. First Great Western have done a good job to deliver some improvements but services are still not as frequent or fast as other regions.

    There is a clear need for more and faster trains to London with more modern trains and better, more frequent local services withs more modern rolling stock. The cost of such enhancementis relatively modest compared to HS2.

    The absence of devolved powers that have driven improvements in Wales, Scotland, Merseyside and London is part of the issue.

    For Alan Marshall is suggest that legitimate concerns about a failure to invest in South West transport infrastructure are “irrational”. The government needs to build HS2 and address previous investment failures in the south west but don’t blame people in the southwest for not supporting investment elsewhere when their own needs have been consistently ignored by all governments in recent decades!

  7. There have been numerous ill informed comments in the press down here about HS2 and the effect on our rail network in the South West. Much has been stirred from recycled anti HS2 propaganda. Transport links are slower west of Exeter, the topography of Dartmoor makes straight line express railways almost impossibly expensive to build. However, the solid stone does have a use elsewhere. The part of Dawlish Warren sea wall to the immediate north of Langstone Rock, the bit that protects some wasteland, an amusement park, and a bird reserve, is relatively new, built of solid concrete, and fronted by huge rocks from Dartmoor. If that sea wall were extended down to Teignmouth, it would sort most of the problems of the area out. If it were down to me (and I don’t know what Network Rail’s plans are for the shipping containers), I’d bury them behind a new solid concrete wall fronted by rocks, which would break up most of the waves before they hit the wall. With a wall between the pedestrian path and the sea, and a wall between the path and the trains, the trains would have double protection. Meanwhile, I applaud Network rail and the staff who had the brilliant idea of using the containers for protecting the houses on the edge. That shows the brilliance of the engineers, whom I suspect given the chance, would come up with a better solution than anyone like me who usually just rides on the trains along the sea wall and gives little thought to what is under the tracks…..

  8. I am puzzled by comments like “businessman living in Plymouth unable to get anywhere”. Why not? There are other means of travel, as the tourist industry is currently at pains to tell anyone who will listen. I often spot trains running along the Exeter to Taunton line and they often look sparsely occupied, perhaps indicating that the temporary loss of the line through Dawlish is not affecting as many people as we are being led to believe. And talking of being led to believe, just how is the figure being suggested as the daily loss to the Devon & Cornwall businesses, up there in the millions, being calculated? Who is losing all this money and how? I have no reason to doubt the figure or believe it. I would just like an explanation rather than someone in the media simply blurting it out on a regular basis without any apparent evidence to back it up.

    • I would like to claim, having moved to London from Cornwall, that the ‘businessman living in Plymouth unable to get anywhere’ is a valid point.

      It is true that there are other valid modes of transport. However, a train takes 4:30hrs to get to mid-Cornwall. A coach takes 7 hours. Without any power and food facilities. This is usually the difference in making a meeting the same day, or having to go up the day before, wasting a day’s worth of productivity, and having to spend upwards of £70 (if staying in London) to get a room at even a budget hotel.

      At the moment, there is NO train services, direct or indirect, into the South West, which is a big problem. Cornwall is one of the only areas in the UK poor enough to qualify for EU Regional Development funding. So what do we do? Do we complain and state that as it’s poor, we should direct the money elsewhere knowing that we either have to continue subsidising the area to keep its head above water, or unethically let it drown – OR do we bite the bullet and think a bit long-term giving them a reliable infrastructure and let them develop into a more sustainable area.

      It is at this point perhaps, that we should be asking ourselves the best way about this, rather than bickering about HS2 comparisons, which are relevant – but not necessarily productive. Whether we like it or not – the money all comes from the same pot.

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