Options for rerouting the Great Western Main Line away from the coast around Dawlish were emerging this week after Network Rail said it would examine the viability of shifting the line.
Communities west of Exeter face six weeks without a rail link to the rest of the country after 80m of the line was washed away by the storms at Dawlish on 4 February.
While its initial efforts are focused on restoring the existing line, Network Rail has pledged to consider options to re-route trains inland in the longer term.
Options for such a rerouting are already emerging.Plymouth Chamber of Commerce chief executive David Parlby told NCE that 26km of track could be built along an abandoned route between Exminster and Newton Abbot.
Known as the Dawlish Avoiding Line, this route was prepared for construction in the 1930s before being abandoned during the Second World War.
Building it now would cut out four existing coastal stations, including Dawlish, and shave up to 15 minutes off the journey time between Plymouth and Exeter, said Parlby.
“We would like a resilient fit-for-purpose modern railway line and that has to come away from the coast,” he said.
“There is a case for the existing line to continue as a local route. But at the moment it takes an hour to travel 45 minutes by train between Exeter and Plymouth and that is not acceptable.”
Parlby said he had raised the issue with prime minister David Cameron and that he wanted to impress the importance of the route to businesses in the South West on Network Rail.
Meanwhile, former senior Highways Agency geotechnical engineer Chris Duffell suggested re-opening an old line via Okehampton.
This would link Plymouth and Exeter via a route north of Dartmoor, and would have the advantage that sections of the line have already been built.
There is a working spur of the current main line from Plymouth to Bere Alston, and a little-used section in place from Exeter to Okehampton, leaving about 30km to be filled between the two.
“Bere Alston to Tavistock is protected for rail use and the remainder is green fields,” said Duffell. “There are big structures still there from when the line closed in the 1960s. If the planning was sorted out we could build this in 12 to 18 months for less than £150M.
“It would be a diversion route for when the main line was closed, but would also provide a valuable service to the communities in and around Okehampton.”
Duffell said the main advantage of this route over the Dawlish Avoiding Line was that only half a dozen homes and a few farm buildings are in its way.
But Parlby said the Okehampton route would add half an hour to the Plymouth to Exeter journey time, making it a less attractive investment than the southern route, which he said could be built in a straight line with some tunnelling.
Network Rail said it would take forward a detailed study when the current situation is resolved.
Its study will engage business, local authorities, communities and the rail industry to assess the advantages and disadvantages of alternate routes, said Network Rail.
It added that the damage to the existing line at Dawlish should be seen in context.
“We must not forget that the storm was unprecedented, and even with predictions as bad as they are, this will not be ‘normal’ by any means,” said a spokesman.
“This is the most destruction to have been caused to the Dawlish sea wall, and the wider area, since Victorian times.
“The company has invested heavily in the sea defences in the Dawlish area, having spent some £10M over the last decade ,and the wall itself was in good condition, until last week’s ferocious storm,” he added.