Rail bosses are to look at least five routes as possible additional links into Devon and Cornwall to end train misery.
Engineers today outlined their thinking in Parliament as Westcountry council and business told MPs of the rising cost of waiting for the repairs of the crumbling mainline at Dawlish to finish, and the damaging effects of long-term transport under-investment in the region.
MPs on the cross-party Transport Select Committee convened a one-off evidence session in response to the recent storm devastation in the South West.
Mark Carne, chief executive of rail quango Network Rail, revealed a three-stage plan to ensure travel between the peninsula avoids being brought to its knees again.
He hinted immediate repairs to restore the line would be quicker than the mid-April completion date announced last week, so the impact on the Easter tourism season would be eased.
Mr Carne, originally from Cornwall, said the next step would be to make the line more “storm tolerant”.
The third stage to start “very shortly” will involve a report to be handed to Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin by July on at least five lines to “complement” the fragile coastal train path.
He insisted there was no preferred option, but candidates for closer examination are certain to include the costly restoration of the Exeter to Plymouth via Okehampton line and a one-time state-approved route through Dawlish that was halted by the Second World War.
Against disagreements over the best option for the Great Western line into the region, all those giving evidence agreed the far South West deserves a better deal.
Tudor Evans, Labour leader for Plymouth City Council, said: “What we need is something fit for purpose.”
Giving evidence, Mr Evans said the Dawlish stretch is now a “Peruvian rope bridge masquerading as a railway line”.
He added the rail disruption was costing the city £5 million a day, while Plymouth City Council chief executive Tracey Lee told MPs three global businesses based there were unable to bring head office staff to the west.
“They do not want to show them the region because of the connectivity issues,” she said, telling Parliament the rail replacement bus from Plymouth to Tiverton Parkway is quicker than the train.
Gordon Oliver, the Conservative mayor of Torbay, warned bookings on the English Riviera were down 75% and Phil Norrey, chief executive of Devon County Council, said transport problems were discouraging businesses from moving to the area.
Mr Norrey also criticised “a pattern of repeat offences following crises” where the region is promised transport aid that belatedly – if at all – materialises.
Some £31 million expected from ministers after floods at Cowley Bridge near Exeter that closed the line for three weeks last year were only confirmed by David Cameron this month.
“It is like a pea under a cup,” he told MPs, warning of the risk of “warm words”. “We haven’t actually seen it, the money hasn’t been committed, work hasn’t started.”
Chris Pomfret, chairman of the Cornwall and Isles Local Enterprise Partnership, who was also representing Cornwall Council, warned tourism in the area had been hit to the tune of £8 million.
But he warned the iconic coastal line should not receive a quick fix. Mr Pomfret told the committee: “Will it be resolved to be resistant enough for many, many years? There’s a lot of talk about alternative, additional routes, which is important, but that’s some way off.”
Torbay Liberal Democrat MP Adrian Sanders, who serves on the committee, made a plea for “unity” amid fears lobbying for sub-three hour London train services to Plymouth will put services to south Devon at risk.
Alluding to the £400 million-plus price tag to restate the Okehampton line, he argued a second mainline could not be paid for at the same time as the Dawlish route – which he said should be the priority.
“You’re not going to retain both lines,” he said. “At least in what remains for my lifetime it is Dawlish – what we therefore have to do is improve the line east of Exeter.”
But Mr Evans countered the region should be “more ambitious than simply restoring the line speeds to what they were three weeks ago”. “The money is there if the will is there,” he said.
Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin told the committee he is expectingNetwork Rail's report on alternative routes to Dawlish on his desk by July.
Network Rail said they would provide a further update on restoring the Dawlish line next week.
Mr Carne said creating a “storm tolerant” route may involve building a breakwater in front of the sea wall.
Of complementary routes, he talked of restoring some of the older railway lines closed in the 1960s, or potentially creating another route around Dawlish.