Just over a year ago, on 5 February 2014, the railway line from London Paddington to Plymouth and Cornwall was washed away at Dawlish as a series of severe winter storms took their toll on the sea wall built in the Nineteenth Century. In response, I called for the reopening of the Plymouth to Okehampton railway line, arguing that the very picturesque Great Western line along the coast was a highly vulnerable single point of failure in the region’s transport network and that it would also bring economic benefits to communities to the west and north of Dartmoor.
So what has happened since then? Network Rail threw formidable resources into repairing the line and reopened it on 4 April, just two months later. It was a remarkable achievement.
On 15 July, Network Rail published a West of Exeter route resilience study (PDF) that priced a range of options, ranging from £400 million plus to strengthen the existing coastal route to some £3 billion to build a completely new line from Alphington to Bishopsteignton that would involve significant tunnelling beneath Haldon Hill.
The Okehampton line estimate came in at £875 million, a figure that includes a 66% contingency. In 2011, it was calculated that a mile of motorway cost on average £30 million, meaning that a 29-mile road could be built for this figure.
The report concluded that ‘even if certain revenue and unpriced benefits were doubled and the capital outlays halved in combination, the financial business case and transport economic case for all of the additional route options appear to remain significantly negative, with each one still offering poor value for money.’ Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin still has yet to respond formally.
In August, the Plymouth Herald reported opposition from some local politicians to the idea of rebuilding the line across Dartmoor because it would actually be slightly slower than the existing Dawlish line. A further report on the Dartmoor line is due to be published this Spring.
All in all, the prospects for the project do not look promising at present.The weather this winter has been relatively benign, with no repeat of last year’s extreme weather. HS2 continues to rack up millions in costs – on course to be up to £1bn later this year, according to the FT – and soak up money in the transport budget that could be spent elsewhere. Smaller-scale rail projects would offer better value for money, I argued a year ago. It remains to be seen whether the forthcoming General Election will result in a change in political priorities.