'Ladies and gentlemen, the station you’ve all been waiting for': Dawlish reopens to train passengers two months after storm damage

The Independent's Simon Calder becomes the first passenger to step off a train at the newly repaired Dawlish station

“Ladies and gentlemen, the station you’ve all been waiting for,” announced the guard aboard the 5.34am westbound train from Exeter St David’s. “Dawlish will be the next stop.”

Shortly before 6am, I became the first passenger to step off a train at the South Devon station for two months.

Friday had not begun well for rail passengers in South-west England. Two months earlier, the only line between Exeter and Plymouth had been severed in the February storms, obliging passengers to use bus-replacement services. Thursday night's final bus departure from Exeter to Newton Abbot had left on the wrong day, due to the unexplained late arrival of the train from London.

But the handful of passengers on the first service to run over the restored line were joyful about the return of the train.

 

"It's an emotional pull," said Dave Lovering, an environmental administrator from Exeter. "I've grown up with the railways. My father worked on the railways - it's in the family blood."

Phil Hoult, a property manager at Exeter University, said: "I met my wife on the platform at Dawlish station. We normally take the train to Dawlish on our anniversary, but we couldn't this year."

The first passengers were welcomed by David Crome, general manager west for First Great Western. "We never thought we'd be so happy to see a train come through Dawlish. Obviously for our customers it's been a massive undertaking for the last few months. Now they can start taking the railway for granted, which is what they need to be able to do."

Isambard Kingdom Brunel's Great Western line clings to the South Devon shore for four miles between the mouths of Exe and Teign rivers. At the height of the February storms, the track was left suspended in mid-air.

Hundreds of Network Rail staff and contractors overcame formidable challenges to repair the track bed and strengthen the sea wall. They even organised a landslip above the line to minimise the risk of future problems. The 54-day project cost £15m.

Mark Smith, founder of the Seat61.com website, said: "Network Rail made excellent use of social media in showing people photos of the damage at Dawlish. We could all see that this wasn't a trivial matter, and the reactions I have heard have not been 'Why has it taken so long?' but 'They've done a great job in repairing such damage so quickly'."

But as The Independent revealed a week ago, some trips will actually take longer by train than the bus-replacement services. The first departure from London to Britain's south-westernmost city, Truro, does not arrive until the afternoon - slower than temporary bus link from Tiverton Parkway.

Visit Truro tweeted: "Truro is a great little city with great access with or without the trains." First Great Western, which operates the route, has launched a consultation to accelerate the earliest westbound high-speed train.

Tourism leaders claim that the two-month closure has cost businesses in Devon and Cornwall more than £50m.

Carolyn Custerson of Visit Devon said: "Bookings leading up to Easter are estimated as being 23 per cent down and current reckoning is the crisis has cost the county around £31m." Malcolm Bell of Visit Cornwall said "We estimate we've lost about £18m. If the railway had stayed closed over Easter, that figure would easily have doubled."

The closure of the only line connecting much of Devon and most of Cornwall with the rest of the country exposed the lack of resilience in the rail network.

"There's a clear need for an alternative all-weather link," said Mark Smith of Seat61.com. "It would not be a replacement for the current line, as the wonderful section of line through Dawlish serves important communities, but an alternative."

Network Rail is due to report in June on the feasibility of an additional line. The two main proposals are for a new link to be cut a short way inland from the existing line, and for the reinstatement of the old line between Exeter and Plymouth through Okehampton and Tavistock. The central part of the route, which skirts Dartmoor, was closed in 1968.

Mr Smith said: "Given the extent of the markets which could be served by reinstatement of the old Southern Exeter-Plymouth route under normal circumstances, with its use as a back-up route purely a secondary benefit when problems affect the main line, I'd favour that option."

Sir Tim Smit, founder of the Eden Project in Cornwall, told Radio 4's Today programme: "One of the problems we face down here is a sort of political inertia." He called for improved road and rail links, saying "We're still trying to get up to 1970s technology".

The first through service from Plymouth to London Paddington for two months was a 1970s High Speed Train. June Gurry, a passenger from Dawlish, was on board. "In a way, we needed this to show how vulnerable the line is. It's amazing how quickly they've turned it around." She added that the town had seen "A massive increase in visitors," as the repair work became a temporary tourist attraction.

But old problems beset the new stretch of line. The First Great Western express arrived 10 minutes late at Exeter, because of "Speed restrictions at Dawlish". Catherine Hayden from Brixham missed her connection to Andover, because the service - operated by rival South West Trains - was not held. But she remained positive about the return of rail travel to South Devon: "It's still better than driving, and I can work on the way." Then she kindly bought me a cup of tea.

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