The sight and sound of High Speed Trains (HSTs) has been an enduring feature of the railway scene in South Devon since their full introduction on services between London Paddington and Penzance in May 1980, and their introduction on cross-country services two years later.
But after more than 40 years’ service things will look very different by the end of 2023, with GWR committed to retiring the last of its 2+4 Castle sets by December, leaving just the handful of XC 2+7 sets passing this iconic location on their journeys between Plymouth and Edinburgh Waverley.
Picking one of the first sunny and largely rain-free days of the year so far (13 January 2023) I paid an overdue return visit to Dawlish to take a look at Network Rail’s progress in completing the new £80m sea wall, and to photograph the endangered HSTs passing one of Britain’s most photogenic locations.
Dawlish boasts a Grade II Listed station building and the 1¾-mile long sea wall section of main line between here and Dawlish Warren is the most expensive section of track in Britain to maintain, having been breached by the sea no less than 15 times since the South Devon Railway opened a station here in May 1846.
After the last and most devastating of those breaches (February 2014) commitments were made to improve the resilience of rail infrastructure serving the South-West, so work eventually began on a new sea wall. Nothing, however, has been done to re-open the former Southern Railway route from Okehampton to Bere Alston, despite it becoming a firm government commitment in the aftermath of the 2014 sea wall collapse.
Looking towards Dawlish station from a footbridge some 400 yards to the south, and immediately in front of Kennaway Tunnel, the section of new wall towards the station has been completed, but work continues on the second phase, between the station and Coastguards footbridge, despite it having been due for completion in December 2022.
While the South West Coastal Path remains blocked between the sea and station, a temporary diversion takes you to Coastguards footbridge, at the northern end of the longer down station platform, and is one of two wonderful vantage points from which to photograph trains running along the sea wall.
Continuing along the sea wall footpath towards Dawlish Warren (1¾ miles from Dawlish) eventually brings you to a second marvellous vantage point, Rockstone Footbridge, which stands close to milepost 205½ and offers a great view of trains coming onto the sea wall from the Dawlish Warren direction and heading into Dawlish looking south.
On a day when flooding was causing some disruption to services in the South-West, the first Castle set I planned to photograph (2C69) was running 77 minutes late by the time it reached me at Rockstone Footbridge, but punctuality seemed to recover later in the day, although one XC HST (1S51) began its journey north from Newton Abbot, rather than Plymouth, due to the earlier delays.
Friday 13th proved lucky when it came to HST spotting, as it was the day when Network Rail’s “flying banana” New Measurement Train made one of its periodic visits to the South-West, working a circuit from Reading to Paignton that took it first to Penzance, then returning as far as Dawlish Warren before reversing there and heading for Paignton.
Despite their only having been introduced in 2019, following extensive refurbishment and the installation of plug doors, GWR has already begun standing down its Castle sets, with further reductions in their operations due in May and only three sets due to survive until the December timetable change.
That will just leave the small XC HST fleet to fly the flag of Class 43 working in the South-West, until they too are finally retired from service. No date has yet been set for this, but it is most likely to be when the Voyager units currently in service with Avanti are displaced and can be cascaded onto XC services.
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