PM visit call as Dawlish line opens
Holidaymakers have been urged to head to the South West this year to help the region recover millions of pounds lost during the closure of the Dawlish railway line.
Business leaders estimate that Britain's economy lost up to £20 million every day the line in Devon - wrecked on February 4 following winter storms - was shut.
This morning, the 0534 train from Exeter to Paignton became the first to travel along the "vital" track, which links Devon and Cornwall to the rest of the country.
The railway line was repaired by a 300-strong Network Rail (NR) team, nicknamed the "orange army", who worked round-the-clock for 56 days to complete repairs before schedule.
Their efforts were praised as "Herculean" by David Cameron, who urged people to visit the South West after arriving at the station on a later train.
Mr Cameron, who pledged to return to the region for his own holiday in the summer, called for three cheers for the "orange army" during a speech at the station.
"People talk about the South West as a great tourist destination and of course it is, I'll be back here this summer I can guarantee you," the prime minister said.
"It is so important for everyone across the rest of our country and indeed across the rest of the world to know this simple fact - that the South West is open for business, open to tourism, open for trade, open once again, so please come and visit this wonderful part of the country."
Hundreds of workers clad in fluorescent orange proudly stood outside Dawlish railway station to watch as the prime minister and residents appreciated their work.
They were repeatedly thanked by locals and handed free orange t-shirts - with a large sign in the window of the local newsagents even promising any worker a free goodie bag.
Passengers at the station were also given free bags, cakes and sticks of rock stating: "The orange army has rebuilt the railway so you can enjoy your journey to the South West again."
The £35 million repair work was completed in time for tourists to travel into the South West by rail for the Easter holidays, providing relief for local business owners and residents.
Gordon Oliver, the mayor of Torbay, said further investment was needed for transport in the region but said the reopening was a "big step in the right direction".
Mr Oliver, who was at Dawlish to welcome trains to the station, said: "The news of the railway line repairs at Dawlish being completed is great news for residents, businesses and visitors to Torbay.
"Having this rail link reinstated just in time for the Easter holiday period is a real boost for our economy and tourism industry."
Carolyn Custerson, of Visit Devon, said the line closure had resulted in a huge loss to the county, which welcomes over 36 million holidaymakers each year.
"Bookings leading up to Easter are estimated as being 23% down and current reckoning is the crisis has cost the county around £31 million," she said.
"I would urge anyone looking to book a break to support Devon this year, especially in light of the fantastic weather predicted for us."
NR workers used more than 6,000 tonnes of concrete and 150 tonnes of steel to repair the track, sea wall and parts of Dawlish station after the severe storms.
The repair was hampered by another severe storm on February 14, when sea battered and damaged the 10-tonne shipping containers forming a temporary sea wall.
Up to 20 metres of sea wall was damaged further and more shipping containers had to be moved in.
On March 4, engineers discovered that 20,000 tonnes of cliff face near Teignmouth, just south of Dawlish, had sheared away above the railway.
This meant stabilisation work had to be done but the "orange army" still managed to complete repairs to bring forward the reopening date by two weeks.
NR chief executive Mark Carne said: "Our army of engineers has done an amazing job of putting back together a railway that was ravaged by the elements.
"They have overcome every obstacle thrown at them, winning many battles along the way to restore this critical piece of the network, ahead of schedule and in time for the Easter holidays."
Local rail users also hailed the efforts of the team and said the timing of the reopening was "absolutely fantastic".
Widow Rose Dennis, 82, who lives in Dawlish, regularly uses the train to visit her 25 grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren in London and the north of England.
"The repairs have been absolutely wonderful," the retired traffic warden said. "It was a huge job but Network Rail are very efficient and I'm not surprised they were ahead of schedule.
"The trains are our lifeline here. We simply can't do without them."
Train enthusiast Bob Brennard, of Torquay, said the trains were "absolutely vital" for bringing tourism to the south west.
"In the holidays the trains here are swarming with people," the retired bus driver said.
"Had they not managed to get the track repaired, business from all of those people would have been lost."
However, there were also calls for a "long-term" solution to transport in the south west, with fears the line could be more vulnerable in the future.
Ben Bradshaw, Labour MP for Exeter, said: "What we need is an additional line, I don't think anybody suggests getting rid of this beautiful line. It connects Exeter to Dawlish, through to Newton Abbot, and I think that line will continue.
"But it is clearly vulnerable, it will become increasingly vulnerable with climate change and for the sake of the South West economy as a whole, we need a long-term solution including an additional line."