A quick rant about train lines and climate change

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It may not be conclusive proof that climate change exists but the sight of the rails on the main train line to the South West suspended in mid air above the sea seems a pretty fair indication of it.

If you’ve never taken the train to Devon and Cornwall, the stretch around Dawlish and Teignmouth is possibly the most scenic in the whole country (the only rival I can think of is the Kyle of Localsh line in the Highlands). The views are breathtaking as the train runs directly above the beach, only metres above sea level, and beneath distinctive red cliffs.

Unfortunately, that means it is also one of the most vulnerable in the UK too. Landslips on the cliffs around Teignmouth and damage from storm surges have happened with depressing regularity but this is the first time I can remember the sea breaching the sea wall at Dawlish.

The wisdom of building a train line there has been questioned since Brunel’s Day. According to transport consultant Neil Mitchell, quoted in the Plymouth Herald, it was breached by the sea even in the engineer’s own lifetime. A ‘Dawlish avoiding line’ to bypass the area was first approved in the 1930s only to be cancelled because of the Second World War. Scientists have warned for years that the sea could wash away the line and ten years ago Network Rail launched a study into what to do about rising sea levels and coastal railways. But local argument raged about whether to mitigate against climate change by repairing the line or adapt to it by building a new one.

Yesterday’s storm is no more proof of climate change than it is of Westminster’s neglect of peripheral parts of the UK but try telling that to anyone (like me) whose train connection with the rest of the country will now be cut for weeks.

It’s not just this stretch of line near the sea either. Twice in the last two years the main line has flooded north of Exeter: last winter it was closed for a month. If you live in south Devon or Cornwall the replacement bus service is a depressing fact of life. The latest closure, which Network Rail say could last four to six weeks, but about which nobody is taking anything for granted, merely rubs salt into the wound.

The floods dominated Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday as MPs raised the plight of their constituents around the coast and on the Somerset Levels, where locals say they have experienced what are meant to be once in 100 years flooding twice in the last two years.

Ben Bradshaw, the Labour MP for Exeter, asked David Cameron directly:

‘Does the Prime Minister accept that we, as a country, will have to spend a great deal more investing in the resilience of our transport infrastructure and that we need a Government who are united in their acceptance of, and their determination to do something about, climate change?’

Cameron replied:

‘I agree wholeheartedly with the right hon. Gentleman on a number of points. First, we need to ensure that urgent action is taken to restore the transport links and that is why I will chair Cobra this afternoon, bringing together the problems of the power reductions, the floods and the effect on transport. Secondly, we must ensure that we go on investing in rail schemes and this Government are putting record amounts into such rail schemes. The third point, on which I totally agree with him, is that we need to continue the analysis of the resilience of our infrastructure that is now carried out by the Cabinet Office. Where extra investment and protections are needed, they must be put in place.’

That’s something but the ‘record amounts’ the government is investing in rail are going into mega projects like CrossRail and HS2. A quick look at Network Rail’s investment plans for ‘improving the railway’ reveals a programme to improve wheelchair access at stations on the Great Western main line but that’s about it.

Anne Marie Morris, Conservative MP for Newton Abbott asked him whether he ‘will look at fast-tracking a review of the funding for a breakwater to protect the railway line and residents, which currently cannot be implemented until 2019 because of lack of funding?’ The answer from Cameron was more waffle about the COBRA meeting yesterday:

‘Members right across the House will know that that railway line is not only a vital artery for the south-west, but one of the most scenic and beautiful lines anywhere in our country, so what has happened is hugely upsetting and disturbing. We will look at all the options, and we will do so with great urgency.’

And Andrew George, Lib Dem MP for St Ives, said that Cornwalll will be completely cut off:

‘In view of that, while MPs from Cornwall and the south-west have been content to support the billions of pounds necessary for HS2 and other transport projects to the north, does the Prime Minister accept that relatively small amounts are now needed to ensure the resilience of the rail line between Penzance and Paddington?’

Cameron replied:

‘I know from personal experience how vital the Penzance to Paddington link is and how many people rely on it, so I am happy to look at this very urgently. Let me repeat something I was trying to say at the beginning of questions about the Bellwin scheme. I know that Cornish Members of Parliament are concerned that now they have a unitary authority, they would need a very big claim before triggering Bellwin. We are sorting that out so that the money and the assistance will be there. On the transport links, it is an urgent requirement to get this right.’

The Bellwin scheme helps local authorities cope and so it is good news that this change will stop Cornwall being penalised for having one council for the whole county but it has nothing to do with the train line. As for the urgent requirement, it’s only been under discussion for around 80 years.

This is an admittedly parochial blog and this sort of story is repeated around the country whenever there are floods and storms. It leaves me personally wondering if it’s worth booking a train ticket in the third week of April or whether I should fly or drive and add to the climate change that is causing the problems? It feels like it’s got to the stage where the line is closed so frequently in winter that if you book in advance you stand a better than even chance of spending half your journey on a coach. The last bit of the line to Penzance is also only just above sea level but it seems to have withstood this week’s battering – so far.

For the South West in general and Cornwall the costs to the economy could be £500 million, according to the Plymouth Chamber of Commerce, on top of the £175 million lost in the closure last winter.

The sight of that train line suspended in mid air battered by the waves should be the moment that we take climate change seriously and realise that we need to adapt to it as well as mitigate against it. But as we ‘get rid of all the green crap’ I’m not holding my breath.

UPDATE: The Mail reports is reporting on two options to bypass Dawlish by reopening one of two sections of line that were closed down in the 1960s. The minimum cost is put at £100 million.

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