When the South Devon Railway Company ran the first service from Exeter to Teignmouth on the 30th May 1846, South West England took a huge step in securing a new connection to the rest of the Country. Brunel’s engineering brilliance put a main artery where few thought possible or sensible. 172 years later and we are still arguing over what in reality should be a national monument to British Engineering.
With Network Rail now explaining their resilience plan for the years to come we wanted to understand the issues surrounding this stretch of line and whether an alternative route was actually the best answer to this hugely divisive topic.

The early days have proved to have been just as controversial with the use of the atmospheric railway working of a broad gauge track. A few of those old pumping stations still exist, with the most famous being at Starcross. Even now Brunel has had an impact with the discovery of water tanks causing the cancellation of road widening. These tanks were quoted as “being of national significance” and so Brunel still has an impact on our infrastructure and i believe the “National significance” should be extended to include the entire sea wall.

Kings Walk, Dawlish. Single track broad gauge

That first version was something new and exciting, At the time was seen as cutting edge technology enabling faster trains to operate. However the onset of problems with the leather seals caused a change of mind and eventually the broad gauge had to give way to the standard gauge used elsewhere on the railways. These issues have always been well documented and seen as one of Brunel’s poorer decisions.

Nevertheless, the railway was here and with it came huge benefits. Tourism in the South West took off with destinations such as Dawlish, Teignmouth, Torquay and Paignton reaping the benefits from the additional visitors. Even now you can see this boon within the architecture of our local resorts. Not only did the railway bring visitors, it brought trade. Teignmouth, Brixham and Plymouth have all benefited from it’s sea to rail capability over the years. Sadly things are now very different and the sidings at Teignmouth as well as the Brixham branchline have long since gone. I like many would love to see an increase in freight traffic on the rails rather than the roads. The South Devon workshops at Newton, as it was then, also brought work and careers for the local communities but sadly these are gone too.

Dual gauge, Kennaway Tunnel c1892

Modernisation first began with the line being converted to Dual gauge. This was the beginning of the end for Brunel’s Broad gauge and eventually modernisation would give us the now familiar dual lines along the entire length of the wall.

Since these times very little has really changed. The semaphore signals have been replaced by electric lights and of course the signal boxes have now gone with movements controlled from the Exeter Panel Box. A few railway huts along the wall have gone but the main track bed remains much the same as it has always been.

So what’s next and why does Dawlish and this stretch of line receive such an undeserved title of being dangerous and unsustainable? I’m sorry to say that this comes from sensationalist reporting. We all love a good story with dramatic pictures but we have been conned! It may surprise readers who don’t know the area, that the wall has only been breached five times in 172 years. This is not a multi occurring yearly event. It may also surprise you to know that we have very few cancellations or line closures. If you were to remove the cancellation of Cross Country Voyager trains from the list due to their inability to deal with sea spray conditions, then you would probably realise that this is one of the more reliable stretches of railway in the entire Country! Surprised? If you look at the rail network on a daily basis then you will often see, signal faults, point failures, overhead line faults, obstruction on the line or a broken down train. Cancellations happen daily but you never hear about them as much as an incident at Dawlish.

Smugglers lane, Holcombe 1855

History shows that we have indeed had events that have caused major disruption and line closures. The 2014 closure was clearly the most famous but surely that is because we now have a much more reactive news system. There have been some famous old pictures retrieved from the archives to over emphasise the danger of a seaside railway but again, I ask you to look at the timescale. Watching the recent Channel 5 series of Paddington 24/7 tells me that there are more cancellations and disruptions in Paddington’s throat than there are on our wall. Do I hear a national scream of, lets get rid of Paddington and build a new, state of the art connection somewhere else? Imagine the furore if the Government were to announce the destruction of one of the most famous terminus’s in the world?

NR History of closures

That’s pretty much how we feel about the Dawlish & Teignmouth seawall. These rare closure events have been few and far between but the forecasts and models for the future suggest that this could indeed change.

Damage at Rockstone 1873

So what are the conditions that impact the wall? I am in a privileged position of watching the wall for up to 20 hours a day. It sounds boring I know but, there is always something going on and it’s not as if i’m looking at the wall face from 6 inches away. I think anyone would struggle to find another person in the entire world that has “eyes on” as much as me over the last 4 years of Dawlish Beach Cams. This does not make me an expert! It does make me informed though and I can usually predict the action times a week in advance. Those key ingredients are winds with an Easterly factor above 20mph for two hours either side of High Tide. The degree of wave height and sea spray is clearly increased with wind speed and the height of the high tide. Spring tides are the highest of all. In an average winter we will get those conditions only a couple of times. OK it may last for a few days but while we watch the over topping sea spray putting on a display the rest of the network is trying to avoid floods, landslides, downed overhead wires, falling trees and flying trampolines!

Huge waves and spray – Storm Emma 2018

This picture from our San Remo camera really shows off what we mean about sea spray. The picture is very dramatic. What you see is sea spray being forced upwards and out. The easterly wind will blow some back over the tracks but most can be seen as a vertical wall of water. To emphasise the point, I have used a picture taken from the middle of our rare snow scenes. You can clearly see that the snow is still on the line and not washed away by salt water. The inner, bi-directional line is extremely well protected even in these conditions.

High tide – Storm Emma 2018

This second picture shows snow still on both lines and the parapet wall during storm Emma. The winds were around 60 mph and from the East but again clearly shows how well the wave deflector system works. The railway it’self is far more protected than most realise.

So what happened in 2014? Unusually Dawlish was hit by a whole series of Easterly storms. The sand on the beach was dragged out and the waves began to undermine the wall rather than bash through it. This caused the famous failure and left us with the iconic railway in the air pictures. It has to be the worst breach the wall had suffered but again i reiterate that this was only the 5th time in 172 years. The national headlines and footage from Dawlish again delivered the dramatic but hardly told the whole story. Dawlish was back up and running long before other sections of the railway. The Orange Army worked through atrocious conditions and were a credit to Network Rail, British Engineering and the Great British Public. Other issues such as the floods between Exeter and Taunton caused longer closures yet seemed to never be mentioned.

Network Rail Team Orange

During storm Emma this year we again had reason to close the line. Dawlish Station was flooded for a few hours and some railings were knocked on to the tracks by Kennaway Tunnel. Headlines hit all the local news, Dawlish Rail Line Closed Again! What wasn’t mentioned however was that much of the entire national network had closures across it due to the severe conditions. Considering the battering that the wall took aren’t you as a reader pretty impressed with the hard fact that the wall and line remained intact? Those headlines drew so many messages and comment’s to our pages from poorly informed members of the public who believed the wall had collapsed and the railway was gone!

The other comment that we heard continuously is to close the line and open Okehampton. I’m really not sure why those people chose to make such statements when Dartmoor and the Okehampton route was pretty much cut off from the same inclement conditions as well huge amounts of snow. Why would anyone spend huge amounts of money on a back up when there is little wrong with the current infrastructure? How many would buy a second car in case they went out and found they had a puncture in their first choice one morning? The disruption was minimal and we were running as timetabled within a very short time span unlike the rest of the Country. The answer is clearly to improve what we have and at last Network Rail have given their view on the most beneficial solution.

Many will have not appreciated that the biggest threat to the line is not the sea. It’s actually the sandstone cliffs between Parsons Tunnel and Teignmouth, as was seen with the massive landslip that took place in 2014. Survey work is currently underway and Network Rail have two choices.

NR’s planned new route

They either compulsory purchase the homes and businesses at the top of the cliffs, demolish and remove them, regrade the cliffs to a shallower angle by removing millions of tons of rock and re-net the sections or they build a causeway from Parsons Tunnel to Teignmouth. This may necessitate the beach at smugglers and some other points being removed, but there are opportunities for new amenities to be provided after the railway line has been moved out. This would allow for the cliffs to be buttressed where the current track bed is. Whatever your opinion is about the South West route, we still have to consider that the wall also protects many homes and businesses. It needs to be there to stop the erosion taking hold in a similar manner to other parts of the Country. I also view those sad scenes of houses falling in to the sea with a heavy heart and to see a similar fate for our sea front properties would be unfathomable when we already have one of the greatest sea defences in the UK.

Our own Colin decorating Teignmouth

It’s not the perfect plan but it was never going to be easy whichever solution was adopted. Many will have fears and complaints about what this means for the beaches and the Coast Path. Will Sprey Point still have it’s famous Teignmouth sign? Will the trains be safe or will they be engulfed during storms? As yet we don’t have the answers but be assured that Network Rail will do it properly, fully engaging with residents, businesses and passengers, and as quickly as possible. Disruption to the network will be minimal compared to re-grading the cliffs and the aim is to secure this vital link for the next 100 years. It’s not such a new idea and if Hong Kong can create a new airport by using similar land reclamation between islands, then this causeway is a modern solution to secure the future for the railway, many homes and even the towns and way of life.

Other work will also include the sea wall between the station and Kennaway tunnel. The face of the wall is still the wonderful Granite that Brunel chose. Now while i believe the entire wall should be refaced to it’s original specification, i also know just how important those deflection curves are. If you are a fan of our cameras then i’m sure you will have seen how those straight faced sections towards Kennaway tunnel are less effective in keeping the spray away from the tracks. It’s common sense really to adopt new engineering to safeguard the railway, passengers and many homes.

NR want to use avalanche shelters

The final section of track is often forgotten. We have 5 tunnels between Dawlish and Holcombe, varying in length the trains pop in and out and show you an area only visible from the railway. These short blasts of daylight are always fun as we try to guess when the next tunnel starts. However, this section has the exact same issue of being vulnerable to the sandstone cliffs towering above. At this point i took my hat off to Network Rail for looking elsewhere for inspiration. Who would have ever thought of using an avalanche shelter on a coastal railway? I believe this to be an excellent solution and was thinking from well outside of the box!

As I stated earlier, survey work and the subsequent reports are already underway and if all plans are given the go ahead by the DfT, following public engagement, we can expect to see the first new improved section opened in 2021. Fingers crossed that NR will allow us to broadcast the works via the Dawlish Beach website!

Many thanks to Dawlish Museum, Network Rail and Colin Campbell for the use of their photographs.