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05 March 2024

Severe weather cuts off rail links to SW England

The river Thames floods into a graveyard at All Saints church in Marlow, southern England on Sunday February 9. (Reuters)

By Reuters

Severe flooding and landslips cut off rail links to large parts of southwest England for more than 24 hours at the weekend as the government came under pressure for its handling of storms battering Britain.

Some areas have been underwater for over a month in the wettest January on record, with angry residents criticising the government for not doing enough to prevent flooding or reacting quickly enough to help those affected by the devastation.

The military have been brought in to help build flood defences and evacuate properties. Britain's Met Office said several weather warnings remained in place for the coming days, with more heavy rain and gale force winds expected.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, who visited the region on Friday, has announced extra funding for flood defence repairs and maintenance. He is due to chair a meeting of the government's emergency committee later on Sunday.

But Environment Agency chairman Chris Smith, who received a frosty reception when he visited flood-hit areas this week, has faced calls to step down.

On Sunday, the government's communities minister Eric Pickles, who took over responsibility for the flood response after the environment minister was taken ill, apologised.

"We made a mistake, there's no doubt about that, and we perhaps have relied too much on the Environment Agency's advice," he told the BBC, saying the government now realised rivers should have been dredged to help prevent flooding.

"I'll apologise unreservedly and I'm really sorry that we took the advice," he said. "We thought we were dealing with experts."

In the Somerset Levels, where muddy brown water stretched off in all directions as far as the eye could see, nearly 3 million tonnes of water were being pumped out every day.

Earlier in the week, high tides and stormy seas destroyed a large section of sea wall at Dawlish in Devon, washing a stretch of railway track into the sea. Further flooding and landslips cut off all rail links to Devon and Cornwall on Saturday.

On Sunday afternoon Network Rail, Britain's rail network operator, said one route had now reopened for a limited service, with trains running at a reduced speed.

Low cost airline Flybe has said it will double the number of flights it runs on weekdays from Newquay in Cornwall to London to help alleviate transport problems.

Nigel Farage, the leader of Britain's anti-European Union party UKIP, has called for some of the overseas aid budget to be diverted to help tackle the flooding. Speaking to the BBC during a visit to the region on Sunday, he described the government's response as "Too little, too late".