In early 2023, Network Rail contacted me to film a promotional video showing the work involved in making the new rockfall shelter that links to Parsons Tunnel.
The completion of a new rockfall shelter marks a major milestone for Network Rail’s programme of work to protect the iconic coastal railway between Exeter and Newton Abbot from extreme weather.
The 109m-long shelter at the northern end of Parsons Tunnel, near Holcombe, has taken two years to build and will protect the railway from falling rocks and debris from the steep cliffs.
Made up of 185 pre-cast concrete units, coloured red to match the local sandstone, the striking structure is open on the seaward side so passengers can still enjoy the coastal views.
The teams from contractor Morgan Sindall Infrastructure carefully manoeuvred the pieces into place using a gantry crane that runs along rails. Most of the construction was carried out at night, while trains weren’t running, to keep everyone safe.
The roof of the shelter is covered with 4,100 tonnes of red sand and 5,132m³ of foam concrete was used to backfill between the shelter and the cliff. Above the structure, 7,000m² of stainless-steel netting, secured by 1,400 soil nails, has been installed to provide extra protection.
The £48m structure was funded by the Department for Transport as part of Network Rail’s South West Rail Resilience Programme, set up after the major storm of 2014 that cut off the railway to the peninsula for eight weeks.
It brings the total invested in the Programme to £165m, including the new sea wall at Dawlish and work is currently under way to install 19,700 square metres of netting secured by 6,000 soil nails on the cliffs between Dawlish and Holcombe.
Network Rail will shortly be submitting its outline business case for the final phase of the Programme between Parson’s Tunnel and Teignmouth to the Department for Transport (DfT) for consideration.
The proposed work follows three years of extensive analysis of existing data, plus further ground investigations on the 1.8km stretch of railway.
As outlined in a series of public events last November, engineers are working on a programme of targeted solutions for the cliffs ranging from soil nailing and netting to groundwater management. This would protect the railway without impacting the beaches between Holcombe and Teignmouth, leaving the track where it is.
Network Rail senior programme manager Ewen Morrison said: “We are delighted that the rockfall shelter is now complete, making journeys more reliable for our passengers on this vital transport link to the South West.
“Our teams worked through all weathers to get the job done and encountered very difficult ground conditions. Once the foundations were in place, it was impressive to watch the structure emerge. The gantry crane proved invaluable to meet the unique challenge of working in such a confined space between the cliffs and the sea.
“All that remains to do now are the finishing touches, such as planting local species on the roof of the shelter. We’d like to thank all our passengers and lineside neighbours for their patience during this essential work.
“We are now looking to the future with our submission for Parson’s Tunnel to Teignmouth to the DfT. It’s the final piece of the jigsaw puzzle in the South West Rail Resilience Programme which will help us to protect this route for generations to come.”
The Rail Minister Huw Merriman said: “This project marks another milestone in our commitment to improving rail infrastructure in the South West, providing vital protection from extreme weather and boosting service reliability across the network.
“Its completion is a prime example of this Government delivering its promises to grow the economy and improve rail connections across the UK.”
MP for Newton Abbot Anne Marie Morris said: “I’m delighted we can celebrate another milestone on the journey to reinstating the resilience of our iconic railway line. The rockfall shelter is complete and the Dawlish to Holcombe resilience work well under way, that leaves just the final phase which is the last and most challenging part of the resilience programme – addressing the challenges of the cliffs at Teignmouth. Thank you to Network Rail, our very patient community and the many other unsung supporters of this vital project.”
Devon County Council Cabinet Member for Climate Change, Environment and Transport Cllr Andrea Davis said: “The completion of the rockfall tunnel marks another milestone in the resilience journey. Thanks to Network Rail and their contractors we now have more resilience on the route into the peninsula, giving more confidence for passengers and visitors to use the rail network.
“The upcoming submission of the business case for Parson’s Tunnel to Teignmouth is reassuring to Devon County Council and Peninsula Transport and we welcome the continued support from the Government to ensure the South West continues to have a reliable and resilient rail network.”
CrossCountry’s regional director Sarah Gould said: “It’s great news that the rockfall shelter on the sea wall is complete. This investment, together with the modifications to our Voyager trains to enable them to work in stormy weather, shows that the rail industry is committed to delivering a resilient service for the region and its rail users.”
GWR regional manager west Mark Chorley said: “This is another vital step forward in the completion of the South West Resilience Programme, maintaining this key rail artery into Devon and Cornwall for years to come.”
Morgan Sindall infrastructure managing director – rail Olivia Perkins said: “We are extremely proud of what has been achieved by our teams collectively, including our supply chain, to provide resilience to this iconic section of railway. The weather and ground conditions were challenging but the individuals involved have worked tirelessly on this complex project, utilising innovative approaches to minimise disruption to passengers and bringing this project to completion.”
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