The railway line that runs along the seafront of Dawlish in Devon reopens tomorrow after severe storm damage closed it this February. Photograph: Sebastian Wasek/Loop Images/Corbis
The damaged Dawlish train line – which was left with its tracks hanging in mid-air after the sea wall collapsed and the foundations were washed away in February - has become one of the defining images of the storms that hit south west England this year.
So it will be a symbolic moment for the region when the line goes back into service on April 4, reconnecting Cornwall and large parts of Devonto the rest of the UK by rail, and providing a much needed morale boost for local businesses in time for the Easter tourist season.The train track in Dawlish was left suspended in mid-air after storms battered the sea wall this February. Photograph: Clive Postlethwaite/REX
The re-opening of the picturesque line, which runs from Exeter to Plymouth and includes 13 miles of track that run right next to the sea, comes after two months of repairs by Network Rail engineers. Built in the 1840s under the watch of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the line has always suffered at the hands of the elements but the hope is that a better built sea wall – and a new study into long-term solutions – will prevent a repeat of the recent disaster. The line remains a crucial piece of transport infrastructure for the area and is the sole link between south Devon, Cornwall and the rest of the national rail network.
In many ways the line, also known as the South Devon Scenic Railway, is an attraction for visitors in itself and the section of railway between Exeter and Newton Abbot has become one of the most photographed in the country.
Its complete closure since it collapsed at Dawlish on 5 February has added to the sense of isolation felt in an area that relies heavily on its tourist economy. A survey of 646 businesses in Devon and Cornwall found that 74% had been negatively affected by the bad weather, with the value of lost visitor days in January and February estimated at more than £8m. Forward bookings have also been in decline by as much as 20%, with thousands of rooms still to be filled for Spring and Easter. This Friday is a chance to let the rest of the country know that they are open for business.
Among those looking forward to the reopening of the line is Andy Sharples, landlord of the Marine Tavern, which directly overlooks the Dawlish seafront, although he is aware it will be just one step in a long recovery for the popular seaside resort. "It will be a real lift for the town," he says. "While the line was being repaired the parade was shut, so we lost a lot of passing trade. But a lot of our customers are walkers from along the sea wall and that's going to remain closed even after the line reopens. As as long as the beach and sea wall remain closed the town will feel an impact."
Next door at The Blenheim bed and breakfast, which lost bookings during the storms but has benefited more recently through accommodating Network Rail engineers doing repair work, proprietor Ann Ferris is hopeful the town will now finally be able to move forward. "When the tracks are back up and running the rest will slowly follow," she says, "But the devastation can't be fixed overnight."
The storms affected many businesses in Devon and Cornwall, such as The Idle Rocks hotel in St Mawes, Cornwall that closed after waves crashed through the windows
One business directly affected by the line's closure is Statesman Rail, a luxury leisure train operator, which was forced to cancel a tour to Penzance for 300 guests while repairs to the Dawlish line were underway. Other tourism businesses affected by the storms include the newly refurbished Idle Rocks Hotel in St Mawes which had to close for six weeks after waves crashed through its terrace windows and the Beach Cafe in Falmouth which was almost completely destroyed by the sea and is not expected to reopen until the summer.
Bigger businesses across the region noticed a more localised impact from the storm. "A lot of our coastal pubs did well" says Jeremy Mitchell, marketing and communications director at St Austell Brewery, which runs 169 pubs, hotels and inns across Cornwall, Devon and the Isles of Scilly. "Storm watchers were coming down to see the waves. But the Paris Hotel pub, which is on the headland, has been cut off since the road washed away and they're still desperate to have it rebuilt."
While Mitchell says the Dawlish line's closure did not affect their business in a practical sense, its repair will still be welcomed. "On an emotional level it does make a difference," he says. "It's quite an emotive image seeing the railway washed away - it gives the sense of being cut off."
Local tourist boards – which have been running an "open for business" campaign – are well aware that perceptions of the storms have not always matched with the reality. Indeed, despite the focus on the Dawlish line, 92% of visitors to Devon travel by road. "Consumer perceptions heightened by the media are very powerful," said Carolyn Custerson, chair of Visit Devon, in a statement in March. "We now all need to work hard to reassure visitors."
Last month the government announced a new £2m cross-country support fund to help tourism businesses impacted by the storm. Affected businesses are also able to apply for a £5,000 grant for repairs, as well as receive 100% business rate relief for three months. On the ground, a series of conferences in Devon and Cornwall offered expert advice and support to help businesses deal with any current or future challenges presented by extreme weather. Crucially it includes advice on how to improve their PR and social media skills which could help keep the public better informed should there be a similar event in the future.
"From a marketing point of view, the storms have been a wake-up call," says Mitchell. "You can't assume that people know you're still open. This winter we're going to be putting banners on all our hotel websites to let people know we're fine – so we're learning to be more proactive in keeping people updated."
Meanwhile in Dawlish, where the reopening of the line is expected to be well attended by prominent politicians as well as the national media, there is some optimism that the area could benefit from all the drama. "I hope everything that's happened will be good for us," says Sharples. "It has really put Dawlish on the map."