Good news for rail travellers to the South West: the line along the south Devon coast is due to reopen on Friday, and some whispers suggest it could be a day or two sooner. Now for the bad news: the rail journey to Cornwall is scheduled to take longer than the bus replacement service currently in force.
A statue of Isambard Kingdom Brunel presides over platform 1 at Paddington station in London. The great engineer created both the means – in the form of the Great Western Railway – and the end, in the shape of its grand London terminus. He might fondly imagine that, 160 years after the station opened, humanity would have found some way of reaching Cornwall's county town during the course of a morning. He would be wrong: no matter how early in the morning you are prepared to start from London (or, for that matter, Birmingham or Southampton), there is no combination of trains that will get you to Truro before noon. But if you're quick, and travel before they fix the track at Dawlish, you can get there at noon. Once the trains start running normally again, the journey slows down.
You will recall that the February storms tore up the track bed where the Great Western line is caressed by the coast at Dawlish. It left the rails suspended in mid-air and the trains suspended for many weeks. Network Rail staff have worked their high-visibility socks off ever since to put right the destruction, and last week they even orchestrated an organised landslip above the line to preclude future problems. Yet to the embarrassment of the nation's railways, anyone keen to make it to Cornwall in a morning should travel over the next few days.
The first train to the South West leaves Paddington at 7.06am. Two hours later, it deposits Cornwall-bound travellers at Tiverton Parkway. This windswept station in the far east of Devon is a long way from Tiverton, and the only reasonably accessible park is a car park. At present, though, it has a bus connection to Plymouth and beyond. And after a 10-minute pause, travellers start heading south-west again. They are timetabled to reach the city of Truro as the cathedral bells strike noon. Even though the train's top speed is about twice that of the bus, rail passengers will arrive at Cornwall's busiest station three minutes later. This is the age … of the bus replacement service.
Your starter for Teignmouth
Aesthetically, the road journey along the M5 and A38 from one side of Devon to the other is inconsequential compared with the magnificent absurdity of the railway. After leaving Brunel's Exeter St David's station, the train crosses the Exe and then chases the broadening river towards the sea. Beyond the beautifully named Starcross station, it cuts briefly inland – providing protection for the Dawlish Warren Nature Reserve, where the pale-bellied Brent goose made its first appearance of the year last weekend. The English Channel creeps up on the left; the track swerves right; and, for almost four miles, the line clings to the cliff in a manner that few other civilised nations permit, before retreating inland towards Teignmouth.
The sea gouged out the track bed about halfway along, adding the term "feeling a bit Dawlish" to the national lexicon and revealing the fragility of one of Britain's key railways.
When a train timetable is dependent on the Shipping Forecast, it's handy to have a Plan B.
Between the capital and Exeter, the old London and South Western Railway from Waterloo via Yeovil provides an alternative to the Great Western. Last month, when parts of Somerset suffered floods of near Biblical proportions, the southern option provided some resilience. But not too much: while the railway network was being ripped up half a century ago, stretches were converted to single track, creating plenty of scope for disruption. When I tried to escape from Devon using the Waterloo route, all the Great Western trains were being funnelled into one line – with exotic station names such as Whimple and Tisbury, but not much capacity.
The train eventually lurched in the general direction of London, but sat in a siding at Chard Junction waiting for a stray train coming in the opposite direction. As the passengers stewed for an hour, the temperature on board dropped – leading to yet another new term for unkindly taking pleasure in the suffering of marooned rail travellers on a stalled train: Chard en froideur.
The people of west Devon and Cornwall may be forgiven for feeling they are cut off on three sides by the sea and on the fourth by Network Rail. They would prefer not to be entirely dependent on a storm-battered stretch of track for their rail link.
The inland line, via the northern fringes of Dartmoor and the formidable viaduct that still sweeps across Tavistock, was closed as part of the "Beeching cuts" in 1968. But it could yet form the basis for a revived route. Passenger trains still run on stumps of the line at either end, from Exeter to Okehampton and Bere Alston to Plymouth, as a result of political shenanigans surrounding the closures.
Twenty-first century politics may yet come to the rescue. Almost all the MPs representing Devon and Cornwall constituencies are from one or other of the Coalition parties. There is talk that they may support High Speed 2 only if the Dartmoor lifeline is resuscitated. Who knows: it might one day be possible to make tracks to the heart of Cornwall before lunchtime.