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.