SOUTH Devon was today expecting a £400million promise from the Government to improve the region's storm-hit rail lifeline.
The Government was today effectively commiting itself to spending at least £400million to ensure there is never a repeat of the main Devon and Cornwall railway line collapsing into the sea at Dawlish. Rail travel in and out of the South West was cut off for weeks following the storms earlier this year
Ministers were publishing a report produced by Network Rail following the winter storms detailing four options to give the region a train link fit for the 21st century.
The options considered include three new inland rail lines, plus an option to massively shore up the existing coastal line that snakes through vulnerable Dawlish in South Devon.
A “do nothing” fifth option or “base case” – the basic maintenance of the sea wall the line currently enjoys – has long been talked down as inadequate by the coalition Government and ministers would today be anxious to make that point.
It is believed that Network Rail’s report will say the cost of the options engineers have examined ranges from £400million to £3billion, and will eventually back a project somewhere between the two.
At the cheapest end, reinforcing the current Dawlish line could cost between £400million and £700million, the report will say.
Many in the region, which lost millions of pounds of business when the main line serving Cornwall and much of Devon was turned into a “Peruvian rope bridge”, will want more.
At the upper end, £3billion would pay for a new line avoiding the coast completely.
A Whitehall source refused to comment on the report, but dismissed claims last week that the Government was considering a cut-price solution: “We are talking serious amounts of money.”
Some £400million would be at least ten times the £35million spent to renew the line after it was washed into the sea on Valentine’s night.
The official Government line will repeat, as David Cameron said when in Cornwall two weeks’ ago, the pledge that “no option is off the table”.
As such, the report was to be published today without ministers favouring any one of the four options over another.
However, a key consideration will be whether the scheme can be “delivered” – making the more ambitious proposals involving building new tunnels and bridges an unlikely prospect, as much to do with the time it would take to construct as the cost.
Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin was to spell out formally what the Department for Transport intends to do by late summer or early autumn.
It is unlikely the full picture over what happens next will emerge today.
Given that each option has a range of costs and engineering solutions, the Department for Transport may ask for a granular analysis on one of the schemes.
For example, there are at least three possible inland routes starting on the outskirts of Exeter before looping at various degrees from the coast before connecting to the mainline again near Kingsteignton.
But they will be conscious that any repeat of the line perishing or long-term delays at Dawlish will be politically embarrassing.
Early Network Rail briefings of their analysis appeared to rule out reinstating the line between Plymouth and Exeter, via Okehampton, which was closed in 1967.
Creating a new line connecting existing freight lines from near Exeter and close to Newton Abbot had also been dropped.
But it is unclear whether ministers wanted to see costs for these routes in any case.
The report is likely to be open-ended enough for politicians and business leaders to argue their individual cases.
Some MPs and councillors in South Devon are fiercely opposed to reducing any rail traffic on the coastal line given the impact on local holiday trade and business, and will likely say the more lavish cost estimates make a new route cost prohibitive.
But politicians representing northern Devon, Plymouth and parts of Cornwall are likely to dismiss what some have called the “parochial” argument, and argue the line serves an entire region and even £3billion pales compared to £50billion given to HS2 between London and the north.