Full speed ahead for HS2 as Dawlish line slips into the sea

Unchanged – the railway line at Dawlish, 1847

Unchanged – the railway line at Dawlish, 1847

If ever there was an argument against HS2, it is the destruction of the railway line at Dawlish by the recent storms.

Built in 1847 and running alongside 13 miles of the South Devon coast this was surely an accident waiting to happen. In fact it has happened on several occasions, albeit not so dramatically, but with the same result – the closure of what is the main line connecting Devon and Cornwall, a route I have had to travel along many times for one reason and another

You would have thought that such an important piece of infrastructure, one that is so clearly vulnerable to the elements, would have exercised the government’s energies before now. But no. All attention has been focused on pushing through the £50bn high speed route to Birmingham and the north in the face of furious national opposition.

Grandiose claims are being made in its favour, in particular how the reduced journey times to Britain’s main northern cities will benefit the economy.

The fact that thousands of homes and businesses will have to be demolished to make way for the route –beginning in the densely populated London borough of Camden where it will start out at Euston – and the fact that the impact on the countryside and farmland is bound to be considerable, have been dismissed.

Oddly enough, at a time of supposed austerity, supporters do not seem overly concerned that the cost for HS2 has already ballooned by £10bn since it was first announced four years ago and could well go over budget. On top of all that, the first phase, to Birmingham, is not scheduled to be up and running until 2026.

Clearly, investment in Britain’s existing rail infrastructure, has been the last thing on ministers’ minds and would have remained so were it not for events in Dawlish.

The line passes through the town before reaching Plymouth and crossing the River Tamar into Cornwall, and business leaders and politicians say its closure will cost the South West economy tens of millions of pounds, a situation exacerbated by flooding and storm damage to other parts of the network further up the line.

Plymouth, a city already reeling from the diminution of its dockyard, will be particularly hard hit. Its airport was closed in 2011 and the main A38 into it is what one might call a long and winding road.

Plymouth council leader Tudor Evans was quoted as saying in the Western Morning News(Febuary 8): “Our economy cannot be allowed to hang by the thread that is our precarious rail network, which is once again under water today.

“Promises made about rail resilience funding are as empty as the void that is now where the Dawlish wall used to be.

“Here we are 12 months on from the last time the peninsula’s transport network came to a grinding halt and what has happened? Nothing.”

What goes for Plymouth, applies to the whole of tourism dependent Cornwall, now even more cut off from the rest of the country.

Yet just a fraction of the billions earmarked for HS2 would pay for an alternative to the coastal route, and ultimately end the South West’s Cinderella rail status.

Up until now the railway line at Dawlish was mainly known for its outstanding scenic beauty, the trains travelling so close to the water that back in the day you could stick your head out of the window and be hit by sea spray. Now, as ministers run around like headless chickens promising this and that, it has exposed just how lopsided our infrastructure planning really is. Bleatings about freak weather conditions just will not wash.

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