Comment

04.06.19

Dawlish rail investment must be the start of a new transport deal for our region

Source: RTM Apr/May

Luke Pollard, MP for Plymouth Sutton, gives his perspective on the opportunities the highly-anticipated Dawlish rail line refurbishment will create for the region for the future.

As an MP, twice a week I get to ride up and down the trainline from Parliament to Plymouth. The route past Dawlish is probably the most beautiful stretch of railway in the country. But it’s definitely the most precarious and fragile.

This year marked five years since the 2014 storms that washed the far south west’s one-and-only train line in and out of our region into the sea. Many seeing the pictures at the time said it looked like a hanging Peruvian rope bridge. But it was not in Peru, this was in the world’s fifth-largest economy. £1bn was lost in economic output for Devon and Cornwall from the link at Dawlish being washed away. With wall-to-wall media coverage, our region was symbolically closed for business. Ongoing disruption continues to paint the opposite picture of a region hungry for growth that is well-placed for investment.

After visiting the site, then PM David Cameron promised “money is no object” in protecting the trainline from future extreme weather events. Five years on, we’ve had press releases aplenty, but little action. Tellingly, the anniversary came and went yet again without any long-term funding being announced.

Can you imagine if the Severn Bridge got washed into the sea, or if London Bridge fell into the Thames and five years later there was still no new funding to stop it happening again? It’s unimaginable, but this has happened to the far south west.

A week after this year’s anniversary the government finally announced £80m for immediate repairs at Dawlish – but this is only the beginning, not the end of the campaign. This partial funding only provides for the sea walls and does not fund the urgent work to stabilise the cliffs along the line at Teignmouth at risk of erosion and spectacular collapse.

Neither does this government commitment match the amount needed to fulfil the recommendations of the Peninsula Rail Task Force (PRTF), the group set up by Conservative councils in the wake of the 2014 storms, to improve long term resilience, more capacity, and faster journey times. Their plan sets out an ambition for a fast and resilient railway with shorter journey times, upgrades, and protections from climate change. It was precisely the forward-thinking vision our region had lacked and ministers had asked for. Once they had the answer, they looked at the price tag and decided to spend cash elsewhere but not in Devon.

I not only want to see the Dawlish trainline restored but improved. I want Plymouth to have faster service, more capacity, and safer, dependable tracks. The travel time from Plymouth to London should be shortened and consistent mobile connectivity introduced so if journeys are to be long at least they can be productive.

This matters because when we are denied our fair share of funding, we are denied opportunities other regions get and we run the risk of falling behind.  The UK has one of the highest rates of geographic inequality in Europe and the quality of our transport links highlights this. In November 2018, 30% of CrossCountry trains to Plymouth terminated early at Exeter because the Voyager trains could not get through in bad weather. No other region would accept this and as an MP neither can I. Where you are born should not hold your life chances back but too often, they do.

Ministers are on notice that they need to deliver the promised upgrades at Dawlish and find the cash for the work to stabilise the cliffs at Teignmouth too. Iconic as the Dawlish railway may be, it is time for it to be properly upgraded.

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