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South West Rail Resilience Programme: Plans for an extended rockfall shelter to protect the railway between Dawlish and Holcombe in south Devon

Plans have been approved to build a 209m extension of the rockfall shelter north of Parsons Tunnel, between Dawlish and Holcombe in south Devon. This will help protect trains from falling rocks along this section of railway line that runs close to the cliffs.

Artist impression of proposed rockfall shelter - view from the sea
Artist impression of proposed rockfall shelter – view from the sea

The proposals will see construction starting in Autumn 2021 with the work expected to take around a year to complete.

In May 2021, Morgan Sindall Infrastructure was awarded the contract to carry out the construction work.

Given the challenging coastal location, site compounds have been built on the top of the cliffs in fields near Windward Lane in Holcombe. There is a main compound, which includes office cabins, welfare units, toilet facilities and areas for parking and storage. In addition to the main compound, there is also a smaller site at the top of the cliffs above the worksite which will store machinery and materials for the worksite and a ‘haul road', which is like a long driveway designed for large and heavy vehicles to travel to and from the main road to the site. Materials will then be lifted down to the construction site from this clifftop compound.

When our work is complete, the fields will be returned to their original state. Full details of the layout of the compounds can be seen in the map below:

Map showing the compounds being used for the Parsons Tunnel project.
Compounds map
Parsons Tunnel north portal

Parsons Tunnel north portal

Cliffs between Parsons and Clerks Tunnels

Cliffs between Parsons and Clerks Tunnels

The railway is a vital artery, which connects communities, businesses and visitors in 50 towns and cities in the South West with the rest of the UK. Since the damage caused by heavy storms which resulted in an eight-week closure of the railway in 2014, Network Rail has been developing plans to improve the resilience of the railway between Exeter and Newton Abbot.

The South West Rail Resilience Programme was established to identify and implement the best options to improve rail resilience between Dawlish and Teignmouth, helping to avoid a repetition of the events of 2014.

The cliffs between Kennaway and Parsons Tunnel (including the northern entrance/exit at Parsons Tunnel) were identified as one of three priority sites requiring works in order to deliver a more resilient railway.

Our plans

Parsons Tunnel North – artist impression – distant view from Coryton Cove
Parsons Tunnel North – Cross section of design

Parsons Tunnel was previously extended a hundred years ago and Network Rail proposes to extend that further by providing a rockfall shelter in modern materials, but with open sides rather than the previous brick built enclosed tunnel extension.

Our studies, including drone flights over the cliffs, show that there are active falls from the rear cliff above the railway. An accumulation of material on the slope could trigger larger debris slides and this stretch of railway is not currently protected against rock falls from this active area of cliffs above.

The construction of the rockfall shelter at this location poses a number of engineering challenges, due to the limited access with the track sandwiched between high cliffs on one side and the sea on the other, as well as ensuring this work doesn’t result in lengthy closures of this critical rail artery to the south west.

The design has been carefully developed to ensure that it provides the protection the railway needs but is buildable in this hard-to-access location and that the appearance of the new structure is appropriate to its setting.

The structure needs to be robust enough to protect the railway line from falling rocks and other cliff material as well as be resistant to the harsh coastal environment, so this new section of the rockfall shelter will be built out of 6.2m long pre-cast reinforced concrete sections, to form the 209m extension.

The design of the new rockfall shelter is open-sided to allow rail passengers to enjoy the views of the beautiful south west coastline. It will be covered by a cushioning material to absorb the impact of any rockfalls as well as promoting vegetation growth.

Rockfall shelter 3D view
Rockfall plan diagram

Preparatory work began in the spring at the top of the cliffs overlooking this stretch of railway when Network Rail engineers cut back some of the vegetation and installed safety netting to secure the shrubbery on the cliffs and reduce any falling debris. This work was closely monitored to ensure the least disruption for wildlife habitats and biodiversity.

Environmental considerations

Environmental protection is a key focus for the project and, following early feedback from Teignbridge District Council, Network Rail has carried out additional studies and submitted reports that set out its approach to ecological protection and management of potential impacts on wildlife habitats. These include:

  • Habitat surveys
  • Cirl Bunting migration report
  • Preliminary ecological appraisal of main compound
  • Habitat creation plan

In addition, a Marine Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Screening application was submitted to the MMO in January 2020 and the MMO has concluded that the works are not EIA development.

What are the benefits?

The project will:

  • Protect this vital section of railway line, whilst still maintaining the scenic views of the south Devon coast
  • Improve resilience of the railway which connects communities in 50 towns and cities in the south west to the rest of the UK
  • The project will leave a lasting legacy for the communities and economy in south Devon, with the impact of the scheme aiming to create £10m in long-term opportunities for the local area, This investment builds upon the £10m that is expected to be spent with local businesses during Network Rail’s construction of the second section of new sea wall at Dawlish which started in November 2020, and follows the £5m spent on local labour, suppliers and accommodation during the first section of the new sea wall which was completed in July 2020.

The planning process

The local planning authority, Teignbridge District Council, granted ‘prior approval’ in April 2021.

The plans for prior approval were submitted under Network Rail’s permitted development rights, enabling the council to formally consult the local community on the proposed designs.

The application letter and supporting information can be found on the Teignbridge District Council’s planning page

Contact us

If you have any questions about the plans, you can send us an email at:

You can also visit our contact us page, call our 24-hour national helpline on 03457 11 41 41 or you can contact us on Twitter at @SouthWestRRP

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