We're proposing to realign the tracks in order to make room for corrective measures to stabilise the cliffs and therefore protect the railway for generations to come.

The 1.8km section of railway between Parson’s Tunnel and Teignmouth is bordered by steep cliffs on one side and the sea on the other. Records show that landslips and rockfalls have affected the railway since it was built in the 19th century, with the last major event in 2014 stopping all trains into or out of the South west for six weeks. This had a huge impact on the local and regional economy.

Since the railway was first opened in South Devon, there has been a long history of breaches in the coastal defences and many occurrences of cliff falls causing adverse impacts on the rail track and services. Throughout its operation, in order to keep the line in service and the public safe, significant effort and investment has been expended on remedial work and engineering improvements.

In 2014, there was major landslip near Holcombe which dislodged thousands of tonnes of cliff material on to the track. For six weeks, all rail connectivity in and out of South Devon and Cornwall was severed – cutting off 50 towns and cities from the rest of the country. This dramatically highlighted the vulnerability of the route, and urgent works were required to get trains running again beyond Exeter. The damage cost tens of millions of pounds to repair. The cost to the local and regional economy was far higher.

Since then, Network Rail has been developing plans to improve resilience of the railway between Exeter and Newton Abbot. Key to these plans is the Parson’s Tunnel to Teignmouth Resilience Project.

Feasibility studies with early concepts were presented to the public in 2016. Since then we have refined the proposals as a direct result of the public feedback we received.

Insight gained from the public consultation in summer 2019 has helped inform the further development of our proposals and we now want to hear the views of passengers, communities and businesses on these updated proposals.

With the support of world leading coastal, marine and railway engineers we have been investigating the best long-term solutions to make this section of the railway more resilient.

The cliffs from Parson’s Tunnel to Teignmouth have been separated into 15 distinct areas and assessed for their varying geological characteristics and risk profile.

As well as installing monitoring equipment on sections of the cliffs, our detailed geological and marine surveys have included taking rock samples from deep within the cliffs, the beach and the sea bed.

In tandem, we have analysed data for climate change and sea level forecasts while, at all times, considering the impact on the environment of any potential changes we might make.

Developing options

As the cliffs pose the greatest threat to the railway line in this location, the two most viable options that have been explored are:

  1. To regrade the cliffs (cutting away rock to reduce the steepness).
  2. To relocate the railway line away from the cliff.

Both of these options would be major engineering operations.

Regrading the cliffs would require a huge amount of rock to be cut away and removed from site – an operation that is calculated to take six-12 months when the railway would need to be closed for the entire duration. In addition, a significant amount of land at the top of the cliffs – some from private properties – would be lost. The visual impact on the famous red Devon cliffs, the natural environment and the railway mean that this option is not being considered.

Geotechnical studies were undertaken in 2018 to evaluate the physical properties of cliff soil and rock to identify any structural issues and evaluate distress, weakness or failure in subsurface materials. This included taking rock samples from deep within the cliffs, the beach and the sea bed, which were further divided into factual reports detailing the viability of the cliff from crest to toe. Data from these studies can be found in the documents available on our South West Rail Resilience Programme page

Our proposals

Our 2016 study outlined an initial concept for building a buttress (a sloping rock structure which would absorb the energy of the waves and allow for the railway to be relocated away from the cliffs).

Since then, the concept has been continually refined based on the detailed engineering studies outlined above and public feedback. We need to realign the track to make room for corrective measures to stabilise the cliffs and protect the railway for future generations.

We understand that protecting access to Holcombe beach is very important for residents and we have been working hard to minimise the impact. Some of the land that the railway sits will be extended but the updated scheme will not impact on a significant proportion of Holcombe and Teignmouth beaches.

The updated design:

  1. a) only moves the railway away from the most potentially hazardous areas of the cliffs
  2. b) keeps the existing railway alignment at both Parsons Tunnel and at Teignmouth cutting
  3. c) the new coastal path will not extend any further out than the current extent of Sprey Point

Feedback from the first round of consultation showed that more than half (55%) of people visit this section of the coastline for walking/running or dog walking. 20% state the primary reason for their visit is family/leisure time.

The updated proposals include enhanced leisure access, walking routes and new amenity areas so that users of the South West Coast Path, and Holcombe and Teignmouth beaches enjoy the space and views of this special section of the Devon coastline.

More than 1km of new path (1086m) with full coastal views will be added to the landward side of the railway between Holcombe and Sprey Point, where users can cross over the railway on a new, accessible footbridge.

The new enhanced coastal path will be 1.91km long and 1m wider than present. It will therefore offer more space and a safer experience due to edge protection.

The viewing area at Sprey Point will also be significantly enhanced with a wider promenade and seating to make it a destination midway between Holcombe and Teignmouth.

With full accessibility built in, this scheme will retain as much of the beach as possible whilst increasing options for all and giving access to this section of the South Devon coastline for those with reduced mobility. In response to feedback, we are exploring options for a separate cycle path between Dawlish and Teignmouth. via an inland route.

Eight potential remedies have been considered for each section of cliff.

The proposals presented in our recent consultation are judged to provide the optimum long-term solution whilst minimising environmental implications and making best use of public funds.

The proposed works will significantly reduce the risk of further land-slips and rockfalls onto the railway tracks and increase protection from storms.

To account for rising sea levels and climate change, a new coastal defence is proposed. Measuring approximately 1.9km in total length, it has two distinct elements:

  • A new raised seawall which is 2.5m higher than current and near vertical to minimise impact on the beaches
  • Two sections of revetment (a sloping structure on the shoreline to absorb the energy of the waves). One, approximately 750m long in the central section which will extend 28.4m out from the current Sprey Point. A second smaller revetment at the southern end of Parson’s Tunnel will replace the current revetment.

The design uses a combination of engineering solutions to address the potential risks and instabilities that are present in the cliffs.


Buttresses, placed on the reclaimed land, are proposed at five locations and will provide the core of the support required for the sections of cliff most likely to suffer a landslip. They have been designed to require minimal land and will have an erosion mat installed that encourages vegetation to grow.


Drainage will be improved site wide, through the installation of channels at regular intervals in the cliff face to catch existing drainage and help lower the ground water in the cliff.

Other cliff remediation measures

The significant engineering measures described above will be supplemented with further, less visible measures including netting on the cliff face, deep dowels (up to 30m deep), soil nails (to anchor less stable ground to more stable material behind) and catch fencing.

A rockfall shelter at the southern end of Parson’s Tunnel is proposed to protect the railway from falling debris from the cliff above. Essentially, an open-sided tunnel, this will retain views of the sea for train passengers.

Unfortunately, this is not a solution for the entire stretch of railway as a rock fall shelter would not provide the strength and support required to prevent a land slip.

Environmental implications

A full Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is being undertaken and will be presented in an Environmental Statement as part of our application for a Transport and Works Act Order.

This will identify any significant short and long-term impacts on the environment and include measures to reduce or manage them.  including opportunities for habitat creation to allow existing or new species to thrive.

Protecting the environment is a vital part of the proposed scheme. Network Rail is consulting with a wide range of statutory and non-statutory bodies including the local authority, Environment Agency, Natural England and Marine Management Organisation. This includes identifying where new marine and terrestrial habitats can be created or improved to mitigate the potential impacts of the works.

The full list of consultees and scope of the environmental impact assessment is available in the full consultation document.

What are the benefits?

More reliable journeys:

Improving the resilience of the railway means more reliable journeys for the millions of people that choose to travel by train to and from the South West each year. It also means greater certainty for freight operators that transport vital materials from the South West to the rest of the Britain.

A boost to the regional economy:

As the main route connecting the South West peninsula to the rest of the Britain, improving the resilience of the railway through South Devon will provide a significant boost to the regional and national economy.

New leisure opportunities:

The proposals would provide improved leisure and amenities including new, fully accessible, coastal walking and cycling routes.

Public consultation

Our scheme proposals for Parson’s Tunnel to Teignmouth will require significant works to be undertaken, these works will require access to and need to be carried out on, land which falls outside the railway boundary and will affect some public rights of way. We will therefore be making an application for a Transport and Works Act Order to the Secretary of State for Transport in order to secure the necessary permissions and rights we need to carry out the works. Prior to submitting that application we want to engage with you and obtain your feedback.

From 10 June – 15 July 2019 we undertook a first round of public consultation, including 10 community events in and around the local area to enable local people to find out more about our proposals, ask questions and express their views. We are grateful to everyone that took the time to take part in this consultation. This feedback has informed the further development of our proposals and enable us to review how, and where, we can build appropriate measures into the TWAO process to accommodate concerns, provide appropriate mitigation measures and properly manage the works.

View details and documentation from the first round of public consultation

A second round of consultation ran for six weeks from Monday 20 January to 01 March 2020. We sought views from residents, communities, businesses and rail users across the south west and beyond.

View details from the second round of public consultation

Contact us

If you have any questions about the plans, you can send us an email at: SouthWestRRP@networkrail.co.uk

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