Bottom up Adaptation Strategies for a Sustainable Europe

Coastal adaptation options to protect railway infrastructure (South Devon Coast, United Kingdom)


The Climate Challenge

The South Devon Coast, located in the South West of England, United Kingdom, is an important urban, heritage and nature conservation area that includes important railway infrastructure connecting the South West of England to larger cities such as London. Coastal erosion and sea and river flooding have placed pressure on the area. The recent extreme storm events at the coast at Dawlish in February 2014, for example, damaged the sea wall and the railway, increased flooding risks and disconnected the rail connection of the area to the rest of the country. Due to the geo-morphological setting of rocky/cliff shores at the South Devon coast, options such as managed flood plains, dykes or managed realignment of the coast are limited.


The Adaptation Response

Following the February 2014 storms the UK government asked Network Rail, the government-owned company responsible for maintaining the UK’s railway infrastructure, to conduct a review on the variability of the railway line and to identify possible adaptation options. The vulnerability study included a financial review (cost-benefit assessment) which was not explicitlyframed in the context of climate adaptation and future climate impacts were not factored into this analysis. There is no clear policy framework driving adaptation in this setting. Beyond the business-as-usual model of merely maintaining  the existing seawall defences and conducting rail repairs, proposed options included strengthening and heightening the sea wall and stabilising the cliffs through wire netting and bolting as well as rerouting the railway inland away from the vulnerable Dawlish coast. The UK’s National Adaptation Programme (2013) includes a chapter on infrastructure resilience for vulnerable sites, but it does not explicitly indicate actions for local sites like the railway line along Dawlish.


The People and Institutions Involved

The local and regional public (Environment Agency and Teignbridge District Council) and semi-public bodies (Network Rail) are fragmented in addressing climate adaptation. The local authority, which is stated by DEFRA to be in charge of coastal erosion management, is limited in its resources and authority to lead climate change adaptation around this case, and it also does not own the railway or seawall. The Environment Agency’s task is to address erosion and flooding form the sea, but it also does not have a direct public accountability or ownership of the seawall and railway. DEFRA and the national authorities meanwhile claim adaptation in this area is a matter of the local authorities.


The Outcome of Action

The Network Rail review to identify adaptation options was ongoing in 2016.



Roos M. den Uyl <> & Duncan Russel <>

Relevant Links

Shoreline management plan for South Devon:

Network Rail resilience study:


Full Report

The full report of this case study can be read here.


Photo: A view on the Dawlish coast after the February 2014 storms by Roos den Uyl