Storms bring the Dawlish Sea Wall crashing down

Ferocious storms punched an 80-metre hole in the Sea Wall at Dawlish on February 4, cutting off much of Devon and Cornwall from the national rail network.

A section of Brunel’s famous railway, just north of Dawlish station, collapsed after hours of being pounded by winter storms. The road adjacent to the railway and several houses were also significantly damaged, as was Dawlish station.

Full assessment of the repairs required was taking place as RAIL went to press, once calmer weather arrived. Initial assessments are that repairs will take at least six weeks to complete.
Network Rail Managing Director of Network Operations Robin Gisby told RAIL that NR buoys located in the English Channel had predicted the storms, and issued a ‘black’ warning. This is the first time such a severe storm has been predicted since the system was introduced in 2007.

Gisby was unable to give a detailed explanation as to why that particular part of the wall collapsed. He suggested it was because the houses there are built on part of the former railway yard, meaning that part of the structure is perhaps not as strong as the rest of the wall. He added that NR had prepared for further collapses over the weekend of February 8/9, when more severe storms were forecast, but that those did not happen.

Patrick Hallgate, NR Western route director, said on February 6: “We absolutely understand the importance of the railway to the South West, and will do everything we can to rebuild the railway at Dawlish as quickly and as safely as we can.”

He said the immediate concern was to ensure that no further damage occurred.

Repair work entailed rails and concrete sleepers being cut away and placed across the bottom of the damaged section. These are being gradually reinforced with sprayed fast-drying concrete, to form a temporary barrier from the heavy seas. NR introduced this protection to ensure that the weakened sub-soil did not erode further.

At the station, the most damaged platform (Platform 1, which overlooked the beach) has been demolished and will be rebuilt in the coming weeks.

Gisby admitted that the site is in an extremely difficult position to carry out work, with access a particular problem. He explained that vehicles could not gain access to the site by rail or easily by road, while access via the beach involves passing under a low bridge at the western end of the station.

In addition, engineers have only a six-hour window to carry out repairs, based on the tidal patterns, and Gisby explained that even that time can be reduced if the sea is deemed too rough.

NR has mobilised specialist contractors, engineers and suppliers from across the country to help with the work needed at Dawlish. It has also taken up the offer of discussions with the Ministry of Defence, to see if armed forces personnel based in the South West can provide assistance.

Train services have been suspended between Exeter St Davids and Newton Abbot. First Great Western is running trains between London Paddington and Exeter. From Tiverton Parkway, replacement buses are running to Plymouth direct, and to Plymouth via the coastal towns of Starcross, Dawlish and Teignmouth as well as Newton Abbot and Totnes.

FGW is running local trains between Newton Abbot, Paignton and Plymouth. It is also running hourly trains between Plymouth and Penzance - the Cornish railways are unaffected, apart from the loss of through trains to the rest of the UK.

CrossCountry is terminating trains at Taunton. The operator has four Voyagers trapped west of Dawlish, and these are running internal XC trains.
DB Schenker is unable to run long-distance freight, although its china clay trains in Cornwall are continuing to operate.

The entire situation was further exacerbated as it occurred during the final week of a three-week closure at Whiteball Tunnel, between Taunton and Tiverton.

Trains had been diverted via Salisbury. But a landslip on February 9 led to the cancellation of trains that morning, while flooding on the Berks and Hants line near Castle Cary, combined with severe flooding in the Bridgwater area, meant no trains at all could reach the South West for about a day

  • This news article was published in RAIL 742 on 19 February 2014

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