Latest 2018 BML2 Project Publication

Design2158 What BML2 will do for

Kent and Tunbridge wells

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Network Rail yet again dismisses ‘Lewes-Uckfield’ but will consider BML2

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Work on introducing a long-overdue new main line between London and the South Coast needs to start straightaway


Network Rail has submitted a ‘Pre-Route Study’ to the Department of Transport on the beleaguered Brighton Line in advance of its ‘London & Sussex Coast Study’ into increasing rail capacity in the south. A draft is expected this autumn and the final report summer 2015.


In summary, this 31-page interim report says the most heavily-utilised junctions, platforms and lines are north of Redhill to London, so this will be the main focus of effort in 2019-2024. “These locations are acting as a bottleneck for the whole route” it says, adding: “Most of these inner locations are also likely to see increased usage from December 2018, when the Thameslink programme is completed.”


Believing there is no single scheme to free-up capacity on the route, NR expects the new Three Bridges Control in 2020 will ease several further key constraints, primarily at East Croydon, the busy junctions north and south thereof, and Keymer where Eastbourne/Lewes line joins.


However, it warns “it is unlikely a significant number of additional main line paths will be released on this route”. This is because the BML is already operating at full capacity.


NR therefore concludes “Given the above conclusions with respect to critical bottlenecks on the inner section of the BML, large scale investment in alternative routes on the outer area of the BML such as Lewes – Uckfield, is likely to be of very limited value in the short to medium term, although Network Rail remains of the view that protection of that alignment is still the correct policy for the long term.”


It also states the extent of rail development in the south will depend on available funding from the Government.


There are severe problems across the south’s network which carries massive volumes. NR gives the number of trains per day at these principal UK stations: Kings Cross 590; Euston 752; Paddington 834; Reading 1,027; Manchester Piccadilly 1,249. This compares with the BML’s north Croydon junction which sees 1,820 trains (1,195 of these go through East Croydon station).


London termini remain a severe constraint. With Thameslink (2018) the newly-remodelled London Bridge terminus will be restricted to 20 trains per hour – “Room does not exist to add additional platforms or approach tracks”.


On the Brighton – Victoria route it says: “Clapham Junction is the key platform-based constraint”.


Added to this, the London & South East Market Study predicts growth of 26% on the BML up to 2023 – 64% of this expected on Thameslink.


There are even more headaches in the pipeline because demand between BML stations such as Brighton, Gatwick and East Croydon is escalating: “especially in response to any expansion of Gatwick Airport and proposed retail and commercial developments along the route”.


As we cautioned, NR confirms: “The new [Siemens] rolling stock for Thameslink services has a layout designed for higher passenger density, with fewer seats and more standing room.” It says: “the extra carriages will ease or at least match the current levels of standing on the route at peak times” but warns: “in the long term, it is likely that passengers will stand for greater distances unless further capacity is provided.”


So what solutions are on the table?


A major problem is South Croydon Junction where the Uckfield/East Grinstead lines join the BML. NR says “No viable solution currently available”. This is why the BML2 project believes Croydon Gateway is critical for new cross-connections with a new interchange station to relieve the East Croydon bottleneck.


Further south, Keymer Junction is “particularly restrictive” whilst the single-line sections introduced in 1990 by British Rail under the then Transport Minister Michael Portillo on the former double-track Uckfield branch severely limit speed and flexibility. As such, this low-frequency service intensifies railheading to the BML from Haywards Heath and Gatwick.


NR rightfully concludes: “it is clear a new line solution would have to relieve constraints inwards of Stoats Nest Junction [Coulsdon] and Croydon to add any capacity value over what may be achievable anyway in 2019-24.”


It then refers to its 2010 suggestion: “long-term relief of the BML would require a new railway in tunnel from at least as far out as South Croydon in addition to any new line scheme in the outer area.” This enormously expensive proposal would involve a 15 mile-long tunnel beneath South London.


Away from London, NR considers the Sussex end, saying “During 2008 Network Rail undertook a study on behalf of East Sussex County Council, assessing the likely cost of re-instatement of the Lewes – Uckfield line and assessing the likely business case. The report concluded there was not a case for re-opening the route. The key points from the study were: 1) The cost of route re-instatement exceeded benefits of all options tested; 2) Options tested were based on the extension of existing Uckfield services to Lewes, Seaford and Eastbourne; 3) The level of population and expected development around the line was an important factor in the weak business case.”


However, NR supports “continued protection of the alignment” explaining that “the logic for this remains sound, namely that in the long term, if a large-scale new lines solution is found to the inner area, focus will again turn to how the outer areas of the BML can handle greater capacity.”


An ‘incremental’ re-opening, recently revived by RailFuture with its ‘Bridge the Gap’ campaign for a diesel-operated single-line connection, is rejected and will disappoint the former Transport Minister and Lewes Lib Dem MP Norman Baker.


NR is firm on this, saying: “In the short to medium term therefore the most likely use of Lewes – Uckfield could only be for the existing 2 trains per hour from Uckfield to be extended to run from Lewes or beyond. The 2008 study indicated this approach did not have a business case.”


NR contests that allocating any additional capacity from the south London area to Lewes services via Uckfield would not serve the largest peak demand locations. Of course, such Uckfield services could not go into Brighton and they argue these “would not relieve Haywards Heath or serve Gatwick Airport”, but this argument is partially flawed. They miss the fundamental crux of the matter that the problem rests with excessive railheading because Sussex’s other lines are extremely poor by comparison – notably the BML’s virtually parallel route – the Uckfield line.


Indisputably, relief of the overburdened BML can only come with an effective ‘rail bypass’ – as achieved in 1900 at congested Redhill Junction. As politicians are beginning to concur, the south needs a new main line between the Sussex Coast and London.


This interim report does not mention BML2, but says: “Running additional through services on the Uckfield line would trigger significant upgrade costs between Oxted and Uckfield including the need to double remaining single line sections, upgrade and put in new power supply equipment and re-signal parts of the route.”


It’s true that a total of 12 miles needs re-doubling, but this has been done elsewhere in the UK – Kemble being just one recent example. Past failures by cash-strapped British Rail to upgrade and electrify the Uckfield line are now being reaped. Are they really saying the West Coast Main Line must have the mega-expensive HS2 for ‘capacity relief’ but the south’s rail passengers can struggle on regardless?


NR admits “at times of planned or unplanned prolonged disruption on the Brighton Main Line south of the Croydon area there would be some diversionary benefit in having the Lewes – Uckfield route open.” But it then highlights the weakness of Norman Baker’s and RailFuture’s proposal: “under the scheme assessed in the 2008 report, diversionary benefits would be predominantly for East Coastway passengers, with any passengers from Brighton only able to use the route with services reversing at Lewes, and passengers from the West Coastway and any stations north of Brighton on the BML receiving no benefit.”
This is why the distinction between ‘Lewes – Uckfield’ and BML2 is so important. NR argues that even if they reopened Lewes – Uckfield, at times of diversion, potentially only one additional train could be run, unless the route is redoubled, resignalled and electrified (as proposed by BML2).


NR says it will look at an ‘Arun chord’ for diverting Brighton trains via Worthing, Arundel and Horsham, but says the journey time penalty, even with a new chord (avoiding reversal at Littlehampton), would add at least 50 minutes to the journey. Let us remind you the DfT dismissed going via Uckfield because it would add 10 minutes to the journey!


There are fundamental oversights in this NR report for reasons we’ll not discuss here, but will be explained in due course. However, since its publication, Lib Dem Transport Minister Baroness Susan Kramer has stated: “The Government recognises the importance of rail links between London and the South Coast. As such, we have asked Network Rail to consider options for improving capacity on this key corridor including the role that the Brighton Main Line 2 proposals could make.”