UK storm Babet reignites calls to revive Okehampton-Bere Alston line
For the second time in two weeks, the British Isles have been ravaged by an extreme weather event, that triggered ‘red – danger to life’ warnings. In the wake of storm Babet, which unleashed its fury across the UK, leaving a trail of destruction, the nation’s rail network suffered significant disruptions. Scotland and the West Country bore the brunt of the chaos, with Dawlish on the Devon and Cornwall main line once again becoming an epicentre of rail woes. This time, the storm’s colossal waves breached the newly constructed sea wall, inundating the engines of two Inter City Express trains, wiping out services.
Advocates for the revival of the Okehampton to Bere Alston railway line were once again vindicated last week. Yet another winter storm got the better of services on the Devon and Cornwall main line, bringing two high-tech Inter City Express bi-mode trains to a waterlogged halt. Local interests would like to see a permanent solution to a problem that hits community and business in the West Country. They say a solution to mitigate the recurring crises at Dawlish is crucial, and that solution is already there, just waiting to be implemented – a reactivation of the dismantled inland route through Okehampton in the east and Bere Alston in the west, bypassing the vulnerable coastal stretch that has been repeatedly battered.
Revival of Okehampton to Bere Alston Line
Dawlish in Devon is a picturesque coastal town, just west of Exeter. Not that anyone on a train notices. Everyone always has their eyes on the spectacular coastal vista, right alongside the railway. It’s no exaggeration to say Dawlish has long been a battleground against the relentless power of the sea. Despite considerable investments in fortifying the coastal defences, storm Babet proved to be an adversary too formidable. The waves not only brought train services to a grinding halt but also rekindled a contentious debate over the need for an alternative railway route linking Exeter and Plymouth.
The proposed route would veer inland from Exeter, through Okehampton, where services currently terminate. Campaigners and stakeholders, including the local authority, want to see the line reopened, at least in part, to serve the intermediate town of Tavistock. Earlier this month, the local authority announced that the section to Tavistock would receive funding after a lengthy wait. However, full reinstatement of the missing twenty-five miles (40 kilometres) would provide an avoiding route for the vulnerable coastal stretch that has been repeatedly battered by severe weather events.
Every cloud has a silver lining
Local services on the two unconnected ends of the former play an indispensable role in connecting communities, especially in regions where road networks are challenging. Currently, the rail network comprises services from Exeter to Okehampton and from Bere Alston to Plymouth, the latter forming the southern end of the Tamar Valley Line. This line is a lifeline for rural communities, bridging the gap between areas where road connections are sparse and entail lengthy detours to reach Plymouth. The Inter City Express trains, Hitachi 800 series, would require the route to be re-engineered, but the chance of waves crashing into the engine bay, while out on Dartmoor, is somewhat unlikely.
Proponents argue that this alternative route not only offers a safeguard against future coastal vulnerabilities but also enhances network connectivity. The local authority has had the idea on the agenda for over a decade. With the recent change in government direction (the cancellation of HS2 and the potential redirection of funds to other projects) there is an opportunity to reopen the argument. The wake of Storm Babet may not all be a destructive passage.