The main railway track through the Westcountry was yesterday hanging by a thread after the sea wall in South Devon holding up the line was washed away.
Powerful waves thrashed the exposed coastline rail track at Dawlish which carries the main line between Penzance and Exeter.
A 30-metre section of the wall supporting the track collapsed during the pounding, leaving the line suspended in mid-air and forcing the evacuation of 18 nearby homes.
A total of 26 families living across the road from the line were evacuated after the landslide scooped away most of the street and left their homes hanging over the edge of a giant crater and precipice.
Residents were moved from Riviera Terrace, Exeter Road and Sea Lawn Terrace and taken to Dawlish Leisure Centre.
The closure of the coastal line means Cornwall and Plymouth are effectively cut off in terms of rail travel. The terrible weather churned up the line and even in more sheltered parts, heavy wooden sleepers were torn up by the winds.
Network Rail, which maintains the country’s rail infrastructure, said engineers would be assessing the damage – as soon as they could get close enough.
It said around 80m of both tracks has been severely damaged by the sea, washing away ballast and the foundations on which the track is built.
“There is severe damage to the sea wall and the track and platforms at Dawlish station,” a spokesman added. “The line between Exeter and Plymouth will remain closed until further notice owing to the damage at Dawlish.”
John Clatworthy, Devon County Councillor for Dawlish, said he had not seen damage on this scale in 44 years.
“The railway was built in around the 1850s and there had been two breaches before now, around 150 years ago. The storm last night was unbelievable,” he added.
“It is not just Dawlish that is affected, this railway line is to Plymouth, the naval bases, Cornwall – it is a lifeline. Something needs to be done and it is not just a five-minute job.”
Riviera Terrace resident Neil Jones, one of those evacuated, said: “There were waves hitting my window for around two hours before the high tide came in. It was like living in washing machine.
“I’ve always had faith in the sea wall, but when I peered out at 9.30pm it had gone. It was as scary as it’s ever been. I’ve always had faith in Brunel’s wall, but it’s gone.”
Newton Abbot MP Anne Marie Morris raised the scenes of destruction with the Prime Minister in the House of Commons yesterday and met with environment secretary Owen Paterson to demand a breakwater.
She called for urgent action for those affected people affected in the area.
“I’m eager to see the travelling public on the move again as soon as it is safe to do so,” she said later in a statement.
“I also want to see what can be done to help local residents, especially those families who have been evacuated from their homes to be properly supported with a view to returning them home as soon as is practicable.
“Looking towards the future, the installation of a breakwater is crucial if we are to minimise storm damage such as this in the future and this is something I am lobby-ing for vociferously with ministers and government agencies.”
Branch lines were also affected, with routes at St Ives, Falmouth, Gunnislake and Looe, where tracks were covered, all suspended.
Further along the South Devon coast, Torquay seafront was seriously damaged in places as huge waves pounded into piers, promenades and beach premises. Oddicombe Beach bore the brunt of the storm, with sections of the concrete promenade lifted and businesses smashed by the pounding waves and rocks. Torquay promenade was turned into a swimming pool as sections of the octagonal paving slabs and heavy benches were lifted and thrown about by the waves. A Torbay Council spokesman said the resort suffered significant damage to a its coastal areas and around 20 trees were down.