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U.K. Redraws Rail Map as Storm Cuts Off Southwest England

Photographer: Matt Cardy/Getty Images
Rail engineers inspect the main Exeter to Plymouth railway line following storm damage, at Dawlish, U.K., on Feb. 5, 2014.

Britain is stepping up plans to redraw its rail map with a new route to southwest England after storms that swept a historic coastal line into the sea left more than 1 million people cut off from the rest of the system.

Network Rail Ltd., which maintains the U.K.’s tracks, may reopen a disused route to help bypass the ruined Dawlish seawall, Patrick Hallgate, route managing director for the region, said in an interview. The plan would most probably cost in excess of 100 million pounds ($167 million), he said.

Storms that lashed Britain this month destroyed the Dawlish defenses that protected the Great Western line for 150 years, leaving 430 feet of track dangling above the waves and isolating most of Devon and neighboring Cornwall, including Plymouth with 250,000 people. While Network Rail is making its own assessment of alternative routes, it has also joined a local study of the disused inland route and will report to the government by June.

“The seawall was in good condition and the storms we’ve seen this winter would have had the same effect at any point in the past, so while examining how to mitigate the threat to Dawlish we’re looking at five alternatives,” Hallgate said. “The problem is that not one is favorable to all parties.”

Repair work at Dawlish may not be completed until mid-April, Network Rail said yesterday, and even then the sea defenses will remain vulnerable to future tidal damage.

Coastal Barrier

Since the Dawlish route forms a coastal barrier that helps to protect 7,500 homes, several options under consideration would amount to a redrawing of Britain’s sea defenses, a policy that’s already put David Cameron’s government under pressure following the loss of houses to the ocean in eastern England.

At Dawlish, the structure has been stabilized by welding 15 sea containers each filled with 70 tons of ballast end-to-end to form a breakwater, with eight more due to be added.

Quick-drying concrete has been sprayed onto the cliff where the line once ran to halt further erosion, and 3,000 cubic meters of the material will be poured to form new foundations before precast concrete blocks are added at the ocean’s edge and the seawall backfilled to its former level.

The cost could be as high as 15 million pounds, according to Hallgate, who said the collapse was caused by the weight of water that built up on the trackbed rather than wave power. The extension of a promenade that follows most of the structure but is missing in the damaged area could also provide extra strength and will be considered in the next one or two years, he said.

Backtrack

The new route that Network Rail is examining as part of the local study would run north of the upland area of Dartmoor via the town of Okehampton, making it longer than the line via Dawlish, and had a slower travel time in 1965 before it closed. The journey would also be extended as trains would need to backtrack to access both Exeter and Plymouth, and the route would miss out the Torbay holiday district, he said.

Network Rail says it’s open-minded about whether the Dawlish route should be retained and is also developing engineering options for improving the resilience of the seawall. Its in-house study, which includes a new line about five miles inland, is due to report back in October.

Hallgate will next week be questioned by U.K. lawmakers on Network Rail’s response to the flood damage. The Parliamentary transport committee will also interview Mark Carne, the company’s chief executive officer, and Mark Hopwood, managing director of FirstGroup Plc (FGP)’s First Great Western business, which operates the bulk of trains over the Dawlish route.

Longest Trip

Network Rail is poised to inform both the FirstGroup unit and the line’s other main operator, the CrossCountry arm of Deutsche Bahn AG’s Arriva division, that they can start selling tickets for travel over the damaged section of line from Maundy Thursday on April 17 before the Easter holiday, Hallgate said.

First Great Western operates 125-mile-an-hour London expresses on the route, while CrossCountry services include a train from Aberdeen in Scotland to Penzance near Land’s End that ranks as the longest rail journey in Britain, spanning 775 miles in 13 1/2 hours. The line is also used by sleeper trains that travel overnight to Penzance from London Paddington.

Somerset Levels

Network Rail says it has 100 people engaged round the clock on repairs, but can’t guarantee a quicker fix because working days have been cut to three hours during high seas. The BAM Nuttall unit of No. 1 Dutch builder Royal BAM Group NV (BAMNB) and Renew Holdings Plc (RNWH)’s AMCO are the main contractors.

The Great Western line, designed by Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, has been severed for days or weeks at a number of other points in recent months, ranging from flooding after rivers burst their banks on the Somerset Levels to seawater that inundated the platforms at Penzance.

Britain’s railway may need to learn to live with such extreme events given a changing climate, Go-Ahead Group Plc (GOG) Chief Executive Officer David Brown said today after his company’s SouthEastern commuter network was hit by 23 landslips as rising groundwater destabilizes cuttings and embankments.

“We’ve had huge problems with floods, landslips and fallen trees,” he said in an interview. “You can’t look back to the past any more and say this or that approach was good enough.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Christopher Jasper in London at cjasper@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Benedikt Kammel at bkammel@bloomberg.net

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