Transport Secretary puts rail track bosses under pressure over flooding
Rail track bosses have vowed to shore up the Westcountry's flood-hit lines after coming under pressure from Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin.
The pledge emerged after Network Rail, in charge of tracks and signals, published a £5 billion investment plan for western Britain's infrastructure that offered few direct improvements in the peninsula – despite an explosion in rail travel in the region.
Heavy rain battered the region last year, with the main line at Cowley Bridge, near Exeter, failing three times – leaving the region marooned by rail.
Network Rail's 2014 to 2019 plan for the Western Route – a vast swathe of the country covering London to Oxford and Worcester and down to Bristol, Exeter and Penzance – offered little hope of immediate improvements to vulnerable stretches of line.
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Instead, huge sums are being pumped into running more reliable electric trains – though they will go no further west than Bristol.
But it emerged last night Network Rail has been ordered by the Department for Transport to review 40 vulnerable sites on the route that cost up to £20 million of emergency funding to repair.
Meanwhile, Transport Minister Norman Baker, visiting Exeter yesterday, promised to put "urgent pressure" on Network Rail to make long-term improvements at Cowley Bridge. Chris Aldridge, Network Rail's principal strategic planner on the Western Route, told the Western Morning News: "We are drawing up a plan to help to combat these types of events in the future because they will happen more and more."
Exeter Labour MP Ben Bradshaw said: "Given Devon and Cornwall have been cut off from the rest of the country for between a week and ten days twice in the space of a month recently, it is imperative that action is taken to address the flooding problem at Cowley Bridge."
Yesterday, South West Devon Tory MP Gary Streeter held talks at Westminster with Mr McLoughlin on the "unacceptable disconnection between Devon and Cornwall and the rest of the country".
He went on: "The minister has already held talks with Network Rail to ensure that rapid infrastructure solutions are found to better defend the vital rail link against future flooding events."
The five-year Western Route plan referenced Devon County Council's proposals for a "Devon Metro" – though rail officials said the plans remain council "aspirations" rather than firm commitments.
They include re-establishment of the Exeter to Okehampton service and reinstating the link between Tavistock and Bere Alston. Cornwall Council's proposed extension of the St Ives service to Penzance and additional Looe Valley line services are also on the radar.
Devon County Council's Conservative leader John Hart said: "I am delighted to see these proposals within the Network Rail plans."
Network Rail said passengers in the Westcountry would get improved journey times from easing the Reading bottleneck and electrification.
Patrick Hallgate, Network Rail route managing director, said: "This programme of investment will deliver the biggest investment in the Great Western main line since it was built 175 years ago."