Brighton Line urgently needs BML2

Following closure of the Brighton Line on 23 September, Transport Minister and Lewes MP Norman Baker said: “We’ve got one major line between London and the South Coast and it is particularly vulnerable at Balcombe Tunnel and Balcombe Viaduct, both of which are two-track. Clearly when an incident like this occurs the inconvenience to passengers is very significant and this re-enforces the need, which I have long argued for, for another line between London and the Sussex coast, namely the re-opening of the Lewes-Uckfield line.”

As with the recent calamitous flooding at Croydon, the vulnerability of the Brighton Line is woefully exposed at these times but, surprising as it may seem, this is not what BML2 is about. Of course, there are very serious implications with closing the Brighton Line, notably the absence of any realistic alternative to the lengthy and impractical detours through neighbouring counties. Network Rail reckons it costs £1m per day to close the line, whilst the costs to businesses, the local economy and people will prove inestimable. More disruption is likely as Network Rail engineers say replacement of tracks and damaged signalling cables at Croydon will be needed, whilst the metal ducting which diverts torrents of water which pour through the notoriously wet Balcombe tunnel require regular maintenance.

Let’s be clear, those who argue for another line between the South Coast and London at times of extreme emergency such as these aren’t wrong. However, the case seems tenuous, even though the number of other regular incidents such as weekend engineering closures, train breakdowns and delays, point failures, passenger accidents, weather conditions, etc, certainly go a long way to justifying another line.

The real predicament is lack of capacity and too much reliance on one core route whereby, when something goes wrong, chaos always ensues. It is a problem which cannot be solved by conversion to double-deck rolling stock or running 16-car trains, as Network Rail concluded in 2007. Similarly, quadrupling the whole line, even if it was possible, would only further exacerbate overcrowding at BML stations and confront us with new problems.

Norman Baker says the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) will now investigate the Balcombe incident, but this is an irrelevance all the while the underlying serious weaknesses of the BML continue to be ignored. Volumes of traffic on this major route between London, Brighton and the South Coast are fast becoming unmanageable and that is an inescapable fact. The ORR and the Department for Transport would be far better employed investigating how they can effectively solve the BML conundrum. But, as we have seen, they have no realistic solutions to offer and no credible case against BML2.

The Government’s continuing unwillingness to invest in strategically-important infrastructure outside London is causing serious harm to the South’s economy and recovery