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

Page contents

  1. Background information
  2. Our proposals
  3. Public consultation update
  4. Next steps
  5. Environmental implications
  6. What are the benefits
  7. Further supporting documents
  8. Contact us

Background information

Aeriel view of Parsons Tunnel

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 Parsons 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 helped inform the further development of our proposals and we presented these updated proposals to passengers, communities and businesses during the second six-week consultation between January and March 2020.

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 Parsons 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

Parsons Tunnel proposed alignment map

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.

Artist's impression of enhanced Sprey point

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.

Artist's impression of Sprey Point platform from buttress

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.Artist's impression of revetment wall and buttress

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.

Artist's impression of Smugglers bridge landwards

Public consultation update

Earlier this year, we consulted on our updated plans to protect this vital 1.8km stretch of railway.

The line, which is bordered by steep cliffs on one side and the sea on the other, is at risk from cliff falls, landslips and damage caused by extreme weather which is set to increase as climate change takes hold.

Our plans would realign the railway to make room for corrective measures to stabilise the cliffs, and protect the railway from the sea, improving resilience for the line which connects the South West to the rest of the UK.

The updated proposals mean more of the beach is would be retained, with improved leisure access and amenities including new, fully accessible coastal walking routes.

Consultation activity

Between 20 January and 1 March 2020, we held 11 community events at venues including Holcombe, Dawlish, Dawlish Warren, Teignmouth, Newton Abbot, Torquay and Exeter, which were attended by 2,840 people. A 10m long, 1:200 scale model of the scheme was on display to help us explain the updated design.

We also held an event for students and staff at Plymouth University and attended tourism summits in Devon and Cornwall, raised awareness among passengers through promotion of the consultation on trains and in railway stations, as well as through the media, our website and social media.

Our webpage received 4,670 visits during the six-week period and we reached 208,710 people through 58 posts on Facebook and Twitter.

We received 1,605 responses from the public and stakeholders via post, email and our consultation website.


The 2020 consultation saw an increase of more than 1,200 attendees and 1,100 responses compared with the first round in 2019.

This increase reflects the growing public interest in the scheme, particularly from residents of Teignmouth and Holcombe.

While there remains strong support for making the railway more resilient, the increase in responses from daily and weekly visitors to the coastal path directly correlated to the increase in people who strongly disagreed with the scheme design.

Feedback summary

  • 73% of people agree/strongly agree that the railway between Parson’s Tunnel and Teignmouth needs to be more resilient, rising by 1% from the consultation in 2019.  Additionally, those that disagree/strongly disagree fell from 19% in 2019 to 13% in 2020. 
  • 41% of people agree/strongly agree with our proposals to make the railway more resilient. However, in 2020 there has been an 8% increase in those who disagree/strongly disagree (51%).  
  • More than half of respondents (67%) visit this section of the coast on a daily or weekly basis. 
  • Support for the creation of the new coastal path and amenity has remained largely stable, with 54% of people in support/strong support.
  • 82% of respondents in 2020 said they used this section of the railway sometimes or frequently.
  • There is strong support to increase railway resilience across all rail users, regardless of the frequency of travel.
  • Those who travel by rail most frequently show strongest support for the proposals. However, there is also disagreement with the proposals regardless of the frequency of rail travel.
  • The most frequent visitors to this section of the coast show higher levels of opposition to the scheme. Those who visit less frequently are more likely to show strong support for the resilience plans.

A more detailed summary of the feedback is available in our interim consultation report which is available to download below.

Interim consultation report

Parson's Tunnel to Teignmouth interim consultation report
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The 2020 consultation asked consultees to provide further comments on the plans and/or give feedback on how they could be improved. More than 2,000 comments were received on a range of themes. All the verbatim comments are available to download below.

Consultation comments

Public responses to the question how could the plans be improved
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Public responses to the question any further comments
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Responses from public bodies
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Next steps

We received some good and considered feedback from our consultation, which can positively influence our plans, and it is important that we get this significant scheme right.

As a result of the feedback, we are now refining the plans even further with a view to sharing these revisions with the public in 2021. We’re now working through this detail; once we have our refined plans, we will schedule a further round of public consultation before applying to the Secretary of State for a Transport and Works Act Order to seek permission to carry out the work. This application will not be submitted until we’ve done this further engagement.

We have written to 16,000 residents in the consultation area with a leaflet summarising the results. This letter and supporting leaflet can be found below.

Letter and leaflet to local residents

Consultation summary letter to residents
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Consultation summary leaflet for residents
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Further information

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. We are 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.

Any part of the assessment already completed will be reviewed in line with any proposed changes to the scheme.

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.

Supporting documents

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