Minister admits changes needed to prevent 'unacceptable' rail closures
The transport minister has conceded it is "unacceptable" the Westcountry's mainline was cut off from the rest of the country as a result of flooding.
Patrick McLoughlin, the Transport Secretary, has added further pressure on track bosses Network Rail to protect vulnerable stretches in the region – setting up crisis meetings between the body and the region's MPs.
Heavy rain battered the region last year, with the London-to-Penzance main line at Cowley Bridge, near Exeter, failing three times – leaving the region marooned by rail.
The resilience of the rail network is now seen as even more important following the loss of Plymouth's air link, and the region having just one fully dualled road into the far South West despite long-standing calls for improvements.
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During Transport Questions in the House of Commons, the minister was pressed by Ben Bradshaw, Labour MP for Exeter, over Devon and Cornwall effectively being cut off cut off from the rest of the country by rail for periods lasting more than a week.
"That is not acceptable for rail travellers or our economy," the former Cabinet Secretary said.
In response, Mr McLoughlin said: "The situation that people in the South West faced over that period was unacceptable. It was the result of weather that we do not see often.
"I have talked to many MPs who have made representations to me on that, and I have asked Network Rail to give a briefing to members from those areas."
The minister added the meetings would take place in early February.
He was also questioned by Adrian Sanders, Liberal Democrat MP for Torbay.
"There are two other important areas within the South West that raise potential problems for the resilience of rail services," Mr Sanders said. "One is the rail line between Exeter and Honiton, which also floods, but most crucially there is the coastal route between Exeter and Newton Abbot, which for decades has required a great deal of maintenance.
"We want certainty about the future of the resilience of our rail services in the South West."
Mr McLoughlin said ministers are "aware of the problems", adding he hoped the meetings would help "come to some solutions".
Published earlier this month, Network Rail's 2014 to 2019 plan for the Western Route – a vast swathe of the country covering London to Oxford and Worcester and down to Bristol, Exeter and Penzance – offered little hope of immediate improvements to vulnerable stretches of line.
But since the repeated flooding it has been ordered by the Department for Transport to review 40 vulnerable sites on the route that cost up to £20 million of emergency funding to repair.
At Prime Minister's Questions last week, David Cameron pledged the Government will do "everything we can" to safeguard the Westcountry's vital rail link.
And Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg recently told the Western Morning News the coalition could "do more" to prevent a repeat of the region being cut off.