Prime Minister David Cameron has declared the south west of England “open for business” again as he visited a town whose storm-wrecked rail line reopened today.
Calling for three cheers for the 300-strong Network Rail (NR) team that has worked round the clock to restore the line at Dawlish in Devon, Mr Cameron praised the south west as “a wonderful part of the country”.
With the line open again after a two-month closure, the Prime Minister said: “The south west is open for business, it’s open for tourism and it’s open for trade.”
The NR team had to repair track, the sea wall and parts of Dawlish station after the severe storms in February.
Mr Cameron said today: “I want to say an enormous thank you to the people who have carried out this vital work. it’s been a Herculean effort over 56 days and 56 nights. It’s been a huge task.”
He also praised the people of Dawlish for “their patience and incredible generosity.”
Shortly after Mr Cameron’s comments, Carolyn Custerson, chairman of the Visit Devon organisation, said: “We are delighted that the train line is now reopen through Dawlish. Devon is one of the UK’s top holiday destinations - welcoming over 36 million visitors a year and supporting over 74,000 jobs - and many tourism businesses have suffered as a result of the closure.
“Bookings leading up to Easter are estimated as being 23% down and current reckoning is the crisis has cost the county around £31 million. I would urge anyone looking to book a break to support Devon this year, especially in light of the fantastic weather predicted for us.”
The coast-hugging line at Dawlish bore the brunt of the severe weather this winter, with the sea wall breached and the line badly damaged on February 4.
This led to the line linking Exeter St Davids with Newton Abbot, Plymouth and Penzance to close and saw the start of a huge repair job by NR.
Large teams of workers moved in to start the massive clear up.
But the work was hampered by another severe storm on the night of February 14/15 when monstrous seas battered and damaged the 10-tonne shipping containers forming the temporary sea wall.
The storm damaged a further 10 to 20 metres of sea wall and more shipping containers had to be moved in.
There were further problems on March 4 when engineers discovered that 20,000 tonnes of cliff face near Teignmouth just south of Dawlish had sheared away above the railway.
This meant stabilisation work had to be done.
With its teams working around the clock, NR was able to bring the line reopening date forward two weeks to today, enabling the line to be open in time for the Easter holidays.
NR chief executive Mark Carne said: “Our army of engineers has done an amazing job of putting back together a railway that was ravaged by the elements.
“They have overcome every obstacle thrown at them, winning many battles along the way to restore this critical piece of the network, ahead of schedule, and in time for the Easter holidays.”
He went on: “The biggest thanks must be reserved for passengers and local communities and businesses who have been hugely supportive and patient over the past two months as we worked flat-out to rebuild this vital rail link.
“Our focus now moves to the medium and long-term, looking at what can be done at Dawlish to make the current coastal route more resilient and, by the autumn, understand what the best viable relief route might be.”
Shadow transport secretary Mary Creagh said: “The reopening of the rail line through Dawlish is good news for south west England. Network Rail staff have worked around the clock in difficult and dangerous conditions to restore services.
“But people are rightly asking David Cameron why his out-of-touch Government dragged its feet in providing £31 million in rail flood resilience funding. This money was originally promised to the South West over a year ago, but only materialised after the devastating floods in February.”
She went on: “David Cameron’s visit will be cold comfort to the businesses and communities hit by the closure of the Dawlish line. The cost of dealing with the aftermath of this year’s floods will run into billions of pounds, much greater than the cost of acting to prevent them.
“Flooding is the biggest environmental threat facing the UK. People want swift answers on the future of rail services to the South West.”
Local rail users hailed the reopening of the track as “absolutely fantastic” ahead of the Easter holidays.
Rose Dennis, 82, regularly uses the train services from Dawlish to visit her 25 grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren.
Mrs Dennis, a retired traffic warden, was approached by the Prime Minister as she enjoyed a mid-morning snack at Geronimos Station Diner.
“I go to visit my family in London or the North and, because I am disabled, I have assistance here,” the Dawlish resident of 25 years said.
“The repairs have been absolutely wonderful. It was a huge job but Network Rail are very efficient and I’m not surprised they were ahead of schedule.
“Meeting David Cameron was lovely. It is great he came here and I don’t care what anyone says - I love him.
“The trains are our lifeline here. We simply can’t do without them.”
Train enthusiast Bob Brennard, of Torquay, was delighted to catch a train from Platform 2.
“It was absolute chaos when the track was closed,” the retired bus driver said. “The roads had a huge amount of traffic with so many buses. The trains are absolutely vital.
“From Dawlish you can go to Paddington, or even catch a train to Glasgow and then from there you can explore all over Scotland.
“In the holidays the trains here are swarming with people.
“Had they not managed to get the track repaired, business from all of those people would have been lost.”
Ben Bradshaw, Labour MP for Exeter, welcomed the reopening of the line but called for a “long-term solution”.
“I think for the sake of the whole of Devon and Cornwall and our economy we need a long-term additional line that will ensure we have a reliable railway, even in situations like this,” he said.
“What we need is an additional line, I don’t think anybody suggests getting rid of this beautiful line. It connects Exeter to Dawlish, through to Newton Abbot and I think that line will continue.
“But it is clearly vulnerable, it will become increasingly vulnerable with climate change and for the sake of the South West economy as a whole, we need a long-term solution including an additional line.”