Guest essay by Tony Brown
The sun was warm and the wind a friendly zephyr as we enjoyed coffee and a cake on Dawlish sea front. A place known to millions of British holidaymakers as a pretty, if rather faded, seaside resort
Black swans –a symbol of the town-and perhaps a metaphor of this time and place*- glided serenely by, whilst the first daffodils showed their faces to the sun.
Just across the road, Brunel’s railway from Paddington to the far west of Britain at Penzance hugs the coast of scenic South Devon. At Dawlish it picturesquely threads it way through a series of tunnels along the amber coast of red sandstone in one of the most spectacular train rides in Britain.
Here the sea is a constant companion, sometimes washing the sea wall with a frivolous salty spray that glistens in the sun, and at other times is a treacherous and dangerous companion that threatens to overwhelm trains that edge circumspectly along the track. This is perhaps the only main line railway in the world where it useful to consult a tide table in conjunction with the railway time table.
But on Tuesday, three days before our morning coffee, Dawlish had become known worldwide when a giant storm hit the area. As luck would have it this storm- unlike many others-arrived during a Spring tide-when tides are extra high-and the winds came howling in from a direction-roughly from the south-which causes most damage to this part of the coast. From another direction, or at a lower state of tides, the storm would probably have passed unremarked except for a paragraph in the local newspaper. But this one… This one smashed a large hole in the sea wall which carries and protects the main railway line to the South West of England, causing a gaping chasm to open up under the railway, leaving a 30 metre length of track hanging in the air.
Several of the houses directly behind the sea wall and the railway hang precariously close to the void, exposed to the elements and which caused evacuation of the residents. Fortunately no one was hurt-although many were traumatised- and tribute must be paid to the community spirit of this town and the efforts of the council, the emergency services and those involved in the railway in a textbook response showing a high degree of compassion and professionalism.
This line is of prime importance to the economy of the West country. There has however been talk of rerouting it for decades as its tourism value and scenic beauty is precisely because of its vulnerability as trains scurry along just yards from the ocean. Talk has been renewed as obviously the initial reactions to this disaster are that this was due to climate change and with rising sea levels it would be foolish to invest too much money in reinstating the old, when a new inland solution is surely needed.
The history of Brunel’s Great Western railway is well documented and is entirely relevant in examining whether the events of Tuesday-and indeed this winter as a merciless conveyor belt of Atlantic storms have marched in to Britain- are a harbinger of climate change. These few references below are taken as the most relevant for our story, but readers will find the entire history, linked below, to be fascinating.
Firstly, Brunel never wanted to run the line along a sea wall as he foresaw problems with the sea. He wanted to run it inland, but due to environmental reasons-including protests from landowners- and no doubt cost concerns, he had to defer in agreeing to a new route next to the sea and through tunnels.
It is highly ironic that the first year of operation in 1846 also saw the first breach in the line. In that year Brunel personally inspected 8 breaches in the line, The original newspaper report from 1846 is here.
In a space of 15 years from 1853 the line was breached continually, with many other breaches since. Just prior to the history linked above, I note that there were great storms locally in 1817 and 1824, the latter described as an ‘extreme hurricane’.
Perhaps the most significant event in the lines history was 1901 when part of the sea wall was rebuilt 5 metres further out into the sea. It was noted this had a dramatic effect on lowering the beach levels. Sand is an extremely good ‘soft defence’ and we mess with levels at our peril. The groynes along the beach that gather sand around them have been left to decay all along this part of the coast as more fashionable –but less effective- methods of coastal defence are implemented.
A local resident next to the breach tells me of large heavy objects sucked off the ground before hurtling sideways as the storms fury vented itself against the sea wall, the railway line, and the houses that huddle alongside it. A curious echo of the 1824 reference.
The 1901 reference is especially interesting as the remainder of the wall –badly constructed of stone backfilled with rubble-was scheduled to be re-built at that time, but never was. It was that old part that collapsed . This can be clearly seen in the picture below where the sea wall drops to just above sea level (where us locals scurry quickly past at anything other than low tide)
(Full story and many pictures are partway down this article here)
No doubt other breaches would have occurred in this papier mache thin wall if, over the years, the storms had coincided with spring tides and the winds came from the ‘wrong’ direction. One can only imagine the hammering it has taken over the many years of its existence. That a key section of the country’s only main line railway to the South West should be of such flimsy construction will be a surprise to many, and I suspect will be the main cause of delays in the line reopening, as clearly it does not begin to meet modern standards of construction.
So, has modern climate change caused the damage? The historic record shows numerous breaches and damage from severe storms in the past. This link shows the breach in the line in 1855; London Illustrated news
Those able to visit Teignmouth Museum –just along the coast from Dawlish- will see a lithograph there from around 1850 showing an identical scene.
In 1846, Brunel went to inspect sea damage to the railway at Dawlish, as reported in The Standard. Brunel personally inspected 8 breaches in the line in 1846, the first year of the railways operation!
It seems that storms are no different now to those over the last couple of centuries. The real story is that an already inadequate sea wall structure which carries the main line railway, has taken numerous hits from waves and storms since its inception and has become steadily weakened. Sand levels have been allowed to drop, thereby reducing soft protection to the base of the wall.
The line was clearly built to a budget in the 1840’s and the measures needed to compensate for its problematic location have only sporadically been implemented ever since. Decaying infrastructure-from sewers to roads to sea walls- is the plague of this country, with its make do and mend philosophy in sharp contrast to the high profile expensive grand follies beloved by our Politicians. The latest planned is a £50 billion project for a new rail line from London to Birmingham to shave 20 minutes off the journey. As Dawlish residents bitterly note, a tiny fraction of that budget would enable a proper sea wall built to modern standards to be built here, that would provide protection to the railway for a century.
That modern climate conditions seem no different to the past may be of no concern to those deciding the future of our railway. A new inland route may ultimately be more appealing than properly repairing and maintaining what we have already got, as the siren voices of climate change are loud and strident and emanate from influential people.
*black swans. The black swan theory or theory of black swan events is a metaphor that describes an event that comes as a surprise, has a major effect, and is often inappropriately rationalized after the fact with the benefit of hindsight