Five years after the Dawlish disaster, which left the far South West cut off from the rest of the country, the region is still waiting for work to start on the promised £300 million of rail improvements.
On the night of February 4, 2014, a vicious storm pummelled the Westcountry, flooding homes and leaving hundreds of people stranded.
At Dawlish, where the main railway line follows the coast, storm-driven waves tore away Brunel’s sea wall and left 50 metres of track hanging in midair.
Just over a week later David Cameron, the Prime Minister, told Parliament that the government will look at “longer-term alternatives” to the crumbling rail mainline at Dawlish.
On April 8, after Network Rail’s heroic “Orange Army” of engineers had reinstated the line, the Prime Minister visited Dawlish, saying: “It’s important to everyone across the country and across the world to get this simple fact – the South West is open for business, open for tourism and open for trade.” Mr Cameron , who is fond of taking a holiday in Cornwall, said: “I will be back to the South West this summer.’’
In October 2016 Chris Grayling , the Transport Secretary, visited the embattled stretch of line between Dawlish and Teignmouth and promised: “There is no option for the future that allows our railway links to Devon and Cornwall to be cut. That has to be an absolute commitment from the government.”
Network Rail said then that protecting the line at Dawlish and further west where it travels below the crumbling Teignmouth cliffs could cost about £300 million, and work could start in “two to three years”.
It is understood that today, five years after the storm, Network Rail is to announce that phase one – raising the sea wall at Dawlish – will get the go-ahead.
The company is still consulting on plans to put a roof over the tracks in places to protect trains from rocks falling from the Teignmouth cliffs.
Sir Gary Streeter, Conservative MP for South West Devon said he would welcome any news that work is to start, but added: “It has taken too long to get a long-term solution. Five years is perhaps one or two years too long.”
Sir Gary said the region’s railways have been “a significant part of my life for the past five years”.
In November 2014 he took the Peninsula Rail Task Force to Downing Street, and the group was asked to prepare a 20-year plan.
Plymouth council leader Tudor Evans, who compared the suspended railway tracks to a “Peruvian rope bridge”, said he had asked the Heart of the South West local enterprise partnership last week to “make a fuss about the fact that it has taken five years to get this far”.
Watch Val and Gerald Belcher, owners of the Sea Lawn Lodge in Dawlish talk about the day above.
He said Network Rail’s plans were for there to be a consultation in two and a half years on the final scheme, to move the line on to the beach west of Parson’s Tunnel.
Geoff Brown, former chairman of the Peninsula Rail Task Force and now chairman of the new South West Transport Board, said: “I am anxious that they do something. It is five years now, and we’ve been pushing hard ever since it happened to get work started.”
Dawlish is in the constituency of Anne-Marie Morris, Conservative MP for Newton Abbot. She said: “I was told the alarm had been raised at 10pm that night because a policeman had been walking along and a passerby alerted him to something unusual happening to the line.
“We need a better monitoring process so we don’t get taken by surprise again,” she said.
“It was an incredibly dramatic evening and next day, and it said something about what a good community can achieve by coming together.
She said Network Rail’s “Orange Army” were very innovative and resourceful in dealing with the challenges.
On the night of February 4, 2014, the news bulletins were dominated by images of widespread flooding on the Somerset Levels.
Teignbridge councillor Phil Vogel went to bed, as he puts it, “feeling sorry for those poor people” whose homes were being evacuated because of fears that flood defences could be overwhelmed.
He knew nothing of the drama unfolding at Dawlish on his own doorstep until the early hours, when he received a call in his role as Cabinet member responsible for housing.
Mr Vogel hurried over to Dawlish, where storm waves had broken through the sea wall and cut away the ground under a 50-metre section of track, leaving it hanging in mid-air.
At the town’s leisure centre council officers and local volunteers were already hard at work looking after 20 people who had had to abandon their seafront homes.
“There were a lot of people in shock,” Mr Vogel says. The mood in the leisure centre, packed with people evacuated from their seafront homes, was quiet and subdued. “People didn’t have words to explain what had happened to them.”
He recalls one woman saying that she too had been watching the news about the Somerset Levels. When she saw seawater crashing against her own window, she briefly confused her own reality and the TV reports – until the waves smashed the window and water poured in.
“As dawn arrived, the devastation became apparent. I went down to physically help,” he says. “I just wanted to lend a pair of hands. Council staff and volunteers were doing a great job at the leisure centre.”
As the light came up, the storm was still raging and, even though the tide was ebbing, waves continued to crash over the line.
“The rails were going up and down, vibrating and making an eerie, high-pitched noise, louder than the wind and the waves,” Mr Vogel says. “The scene was totally disorientating.”
Meanwhile, at the leisure centre, local people were turning up with bags of food and supplies such as toothpaste.
“It was an amazing time,” Mr Vogel says. “People just came together to help and to do what they could in those first few hours.”
In the days that followed, Network Rail’s famous “Orange Army” of engineers arrived to wage war against the waves.
“Two more big tides came in subsequently, and at one point it looked like the line couldn’t be saved,” Mr Vogel says.
“But then some clever person at Network Rail figured out that if you filled shipping containers with stones and dropped them into the sea, it would form a barrier to allow the work to be done. It was a stroke of genius.
“So many people rely on that line, that it would have been problematic if they couldn’t repair it.
“The reason it got done so quickly was that David Cameron, the Prime Minister, came down and talked to the volunteers and the people who were there the night it happened. It was that acknowledgement that gave everyone the strength to go on.”
Communities across the South West felt the storm’s fury, which left 9,000 homes without power. Wind gusts of 92mph were recorded on the Isles of Scilly.
There was flooding in Newlyn, St Mawes, Perranporth, Looe, Kingsand, Cawsand, Plymouth, Torcross, Dawlish and Exmouth.
In Porthleven, Cornwall, six boats sank as the outer harbour was breached.
About 40 holiday homes were flooded in Millendreath, Cornwall, and fire crews had to rescue an elderly disabled man.
Homes were also evacuated in Torcross in Devon.
How the Dawlish sea wall disaster evolved on February 4 and 5
Tuesday February 4 – The storms raged all day
This Met Office map shows the worst gusts of the winter hit the South West that day – and it was worse in South Devon than anywhere else in mainland Britain. Gusts of 79mph were recorded at Berry Head. Only the Scilly Isles, far out into the Atlantic Ocean, recorded slightly worse winds at 80mph. Residents on Dawlish seafront said waves were already hitting their windows TWO HOURS BEFORE high tide.
7.30pm Two hours before high tide
Residents began to realise conditions were bad when, two hours before high tide, seawater was already hitting their windows.
9.20pm Marine Parade flooded
At the other end of the seafront, two people had to be rescued when their vehicle became trapped in floodwater in Marine Parade, at about 21:20pm on the Tuesday night, February 4.
9.30-10pm The sea wall began to collapse and electric lights went out.
One terrified resident at Riviera Terrace looked out into the dark just after 9.30pm and said: “I looked out and the sea wall had gone.”
10pm Residents began to ring the emergency services
The people living in Riviera Terrace and the adjoining Sea Lawn Terrace began to fear for their lives as they looked out of their windows in the dark to see that the sea wall, railway track and road began to disappear. The raging sea was within feet of their front doors.
10pm to 10.30 Emergency services arrived
Residents report there was some confusion on the night as emergency services dealt with flooding and people trapped in cars at Marine Parade. When the reports of the line collapsing first came in the emergency services went to the railway station. When 999 services realised the problem was further along the line at Sea Lawn Terrace they realised the severity of the situation and began knocking on doors in the area and in Exeter Road above warning people that they might have to move out of their homes.
10.45pm Decision to evacuate daken and major incident declared
About 50 people – 26 families in all – were given just five minutes to leave, with just the clothes they stood up in, coats and blankets to wrap around sleeping children.
11.30pm The Sea Lawn Lodge guest house was asked by police to help
Val and Gerald Belcher have since been honoured for the way they took care of people at their guesthouse on the night of the storm in the hours before the emergency planning team kicked into gear. Families with small children were given beds for the night.
3am Dawlish Leisure Centre was opened
Teignbridge District Council’s emergency planning team kicked into gear and by 3am they had the Dawlish Leisure Centre open and families slept on mats on the floor overnight.
7am First light – the full scale of the disaster hit national headlines
This was the scene on Wednesday morning as people began to realise the enormity of what had happened – not just for those people living in Dawlish but for the whole of the South West peninsula’s transport network and the local economy.