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South West rail resilience – ministers reneging on promise?

South West rail resilience – ministers reneging on promise?
3 min read

Secretary of the APPG South West Rail Group, Lord Berkeley warns that a pause in Network Rail’s work will significantly increase the risk of a repeat flood, line erosion or closure with all the attendant misery and loss of business.

Last week, the DfT and Network Rail announced that work to be undertaken by the company to feed into the 20-year plan of the Peninsula Rail Task Force would be ‘paused’ until 2019 or later. Two studies on electrification and faster journey times are integral to this report, along with development of further protection for the Dawlish sea wall and on stabilisation of the hillside above,

The studies were to be undertaken by Network Rail as part of its contribution to the PRTF proposals which were commissioned at the Secretary of State’s behest and supported by the Prime Minister. In particular, the two studies on electrification and journey time are vital elements, providing key detail that will enable robust and informed programming of work as well as feeding into important economic data. Without these two studies the PRTF report will be compromised and any benefits of new rolling stock will not be maximised, which seems entirely at odds with the rail agenda. 

At Dawlish, whereas the structure of the sea wall has been rebuilt to modern standards and, so far at least, has withstood most of the winter storms, there is further work which needs to be done to improve the resilience.  This includes rock armour to remove the threat of high seas and breaking waves onto the track.  On the adjacent hillside, although a lot of work has been done to stabilise it, my understanding is that there is a lot more investigation, design and site work needed to be done there since, at present, it may be that the hillside is a greater threat to resilience than the sea.

Until this work is complete, then there remains a serious risk of that stretch of line being closed for weeks or even months in the event of a severe storm or heavy rainfall.      

Whereas any actual construction work would almost certainly not take place until the next control period, there is a lot of study and investigation work as outlined above which needs to continue to completion if the network is not to be continually compromised and the work achieved within a reasonable timescale.  Since it is mainly study work, the costs are relatively small. It would be really good if you could ensure that these studies could continue without delay so that, when complete, ministers can make an informed choice as to which options to go for and hopefully allocate enough funds to ensure that the site work is complete in a reasonable timescale within CP 6.

I recall that the SW has only one rail link, with a bad record of disruption due to flooding, sometimes for months on end, during which it is effectively cut off for many businesses. Allied to a single main road connection, the peninsula is more dependent than most other areas on connectivity, but remaining vulnerable for at least another 5-8 years. Whilst Network Rail’s work to date is well done, it is only the first stage, and a pause now will significantly increase the risk of a repeat flood, line erosion or closure with all the attendant misery and loss of business.

Lord Berkeley is a Labour peer and Secretary of the All Party Parliamentary South West Rail Group

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