Calls to reopen alternative rail route as main SW line impacted

By Phil Stoneham   |   Reporter   |
Monday 31st January 2022 7:00 am
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The mainline at Dawlish ()

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CALLS for the reopening of a main railway line across Dartmoor have been reignited following an announcement that vital engineering work will close the route between London and Plymouth for four nights a week for nearly two months.

Members of the Tavistock Okehampton Reopening Scheme (TORS) said the closure would hit the area ‘particularly hard’.

Director Andrew Roden, who is also deputy editor of rail industry magazine Modern Railways, said: ‘The need for overnight closures of the railway is well understood, but hits Devon and Cornwall particularly hard. The ‘Night Riviera’ sleeper train is a vital lifeline service and its temporary loss will be keenly felt across the region.

‘These essential closures highlight the need for an additional secondary main line railway linking Plymouth and Exeter. Such closures not only prevent the ‘Night Riviera’ from running: they also deter the likes of supermarkets and industry from even considering rail freight as an option to reduce lorry journeys on our busy roads.

‘Full reinstatement of the Dartmoor Line throughout is critical for the South West’s economic and social wellbeing. It has the support of MPs across Devon and Cornwall, as well as Devon County Council and business and tourism bodies throughout our region.

‘We’re ready, willing and able to work with all stakeholders to make a compelling case for detailed examination of the reinstatement’s benefits, potential route options and service patterns.

‘It is strategically, economically and socially vital that overnight closures for maintenance do not cut off an entire county and large parts of another from the national rail network.’

Network Rail said the Night Riviera sleeper train would be suspended from last Monday (January 24) until March 18 while the work is carried out between Dawlish and Holcombe as part of its £37.4m resilience project to construct a 209m rockfall shelter extension north of Parsons Tunnel in Devon.

The company said the important work forms part of the wider South West Rail Resilience Programme which is helping protect the vital rail artery to the south west, helping to ensure a reliable train service for generations to come.

Work began on safeguarding the route following a massive storm in 2014 which battered the seawall at Dawlish and destroyed the rail link between Devon and Cornwall and the rest of the country.

The rockfall shelter is an extension of Parson’s Tunnel designed to protect the railway line from rocks falling from the cliff face above, which Network Rail has identified as a growing risk to the railway.

Engineers have identified that the condition of the ground is not sufficient to be able to safely begin the piling work from the side of the railway, and that all piling must therefore be done by a specialist piling rig from the track itself.

During this time, GWR’s Night Riviera Sleeper service between London Paddington and Penzance will not be able to operate from Monday to Thursday evenings. The Sleeper will continue to operate as advertised on Friday and Sundays.

The closure of the railway also means the GWR 22.02 service from Paddington to Newton Abbot via Bath and Bristol, will terminate at Exeter St Davids for the period.

All other weekday and weekend train services are unaffected.

Mike Gallop, Network Rail Western route and strategic operations director, said: ‘The worksite at Parsons Tunnel is in a difficult location, surrounded by sheer cliffs, the sea and a tunnel.

‘While it is disappointing to need to close the railway overnight for this period, the safety of those working on the project and our passengers is paramount and we have concluded the piling for this project is most safely achieved by using a rail-mounted piling machine.

‘We have seen a shift in more passengers travelling on the weekends and for leisure, so we are undertaking this work now ahead of the Easter break whilst ensuring weekend travel isn’t affected.

‘I would like to thank passengers for their patience and understanding while we complete this important work that once complete, will help protect trains against falling rocks along this vital stretch of railway.’

Mark Hopwood, GWR managing director, said: ‘Our Night Riviera Sleeper service is extremely popular and provides an important link between London and Devon and Cornwall and we are sorry for the disruption that this vital engineering work will cause.

‘The rockfall shelter extension is a key piece of work that in the long run will greatly improve the reliability of train services in the future. We always work with Network Rail to minimise the impact of their work on our customers.

‘Traditionally, this might mean looking at reducing services at weekends to accommodate the extra work, however at with a reduced number of customers using this service at present due to Covid, this weekday overnight work will cause the least disruption.’

The Tavistock Okehampton Reopening Scheme is examining the case for full reinstatement of the railway from Exeter to Plymouth via Okehampton and Tavistock.

Supporters hope the recent reopening of the line from Okehampton to Exeter will be the first phase of a long-term project to reconnect Plymouth with a secondary route across north Dartmoor via Tavistock.

Hope are high that Tavistock will soon have its rail link with Plymouth restored after Devon County Council was granted £50,000 worth of Government cash to prepare a business case for the project.

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