Back in 1855, a certain I K Brunel wrote to the directors of the South Devon Railway to explain that there had been a bit of a mishap on the railway he’d recently built at Dawlish.In a nutshell, the sea had washed away about 50 yards of the embankment. But not to worry! It had been a ‘most unusual’ set of circumstances, involving such eldritch phenomena as ‘waves’ and ‘tides’; there was no reason to think that this stretch of line, viewed in the round and over time, would be any more vulnerable than any other.
By 1933 the South Devon’s successors, the Great Western Railway, had decided that enough was enough – maintaining the sea wall was costing a fortune, and services were being interrupted too often. An inland route was required. Enter the Dawlish Avoiding Line (DAL).
Helpfully, the government was dishing out loans for infrastructure projects at the time, so the GWR developed detailed plans for a new route from Exeter to Newton Abbot, skirting round the back of Dawlish and Teignmouth. They bought the land, and had begun staking out the route when a slight political misunderstanding across the Channel brought things to a halt in August 1939.
After nationalisation, British Railways sold off the land. Presumably they saw no need to divert the GWR now that the London and South Western Railway’s route, via Okehampton and Tavistock, was under the same management. Bad weather still shut the Dawlish line from time to time, but the LSWR route kept things ticking along.
Now things get tricky. When Dr Richard Beeching was looking for places to let rip with his feller buncher, duplicated routes were a prime target. The LSWR route skirted the sparsely-populated edge of Dartmoor. It had branches covering most of North Devon, but they were closing down so that didn’t matter. But the LSWR’s route was inland, and plainly more resilient. The GWR route, on the other hand, served the populous South Devon coast. You might think there was a case to keep both routes open under these circumstances – but no; the LSWR route got the chop.
But it didn’t entirely disappear. The Exeter-Okehampton section stayed open to serve a quarry at Meldon, and the Plymouth-Bere Alston section was retained as part of the line to Gunnislake. That left just 20-mile gap. And there is serious talk of reopening the line from Bere Alston to Tavistock, which would cut the gap down to 15 miles.
So here we are in February 2014, with a big hole at Dawlish where the sea wall used to be, and the south-west peninsula cut off for perhaps 2 months or more. What’s to do? According to the BBC, Network Rail are looking at one option: Reopening the LSWR route.
Beeching, see; he wasn’t always right.