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WHY WE NEED BML2 NOW

by Lord Bassam of Brighton

lord bassam 2002

The rationale behind restoring rail services between Uckfield and Brighton is now overwhelming. In my opinion the case has never been stronger and makes obvious strategic transport sense. During the last six months the Brighton Line has been out of action on a number of occasions, bringing chaos to the south’s premier main line and thousands of people who daily rely upon it. We must have a long-term, permanent solution to reduce pressure on the BML and expand capacity between Sussex and London. I believe BML2 does just that.

If you study the wonderful railway map in coloured glazed tiles at London Victoria showing the system we once had, you’ll be struck by the number of lines which once radiated out from London to the coast and linked into each other.  A lot have been closed and whilst I’m not concerned about railway nostalgia, I very much support re-opening rail lines where there is a strong strategic purpose.

It’s a myth that the Lewes–Uckfield link was closed by Beeching because it didn’t pay, when in fact its demise was sealed by an East Sussex County Council road scheme in Lewes. I know Norman Baker has spoken of this on YouTube and would agree with me that this was a disastrous error of judgement for which we are still paying the costs. Forty-three years on, the impact of this ridiculous closure reverberates just as strongly today on the Brighton Line, because railways are an interconnecting operation and cannot be considered in isolation. So you can see that we are not talking specifically about improving transport between Lewes and Uckfield – as good as that will be for Sussex – but forging new connections and taking pressure off the Brighton Line.

The Government is failing Brighton, which needs a fast alternative route at times of major disruption and lots more rail capacity into London. We need a solution now because the Rail Minister has admitted Thameslink won’t be enough, whilst the DfT estimates a seating shortfall of 3,000 by 2031. But those of us who have commuted for over thirty years think that’s a serious underestimation.

We have short-sighted transport policies in the south, typified by Earl Attlee who told the House of Lords recently that this reopening was not needed for another twenty years. This astounding assessment highlights the problem with the north/south political divide where the Conservatives take the south electorally for granted. While the region might prosper through the efforts of those who live, work and commute here, it’s ironic that we suffer from a distinct lack of long-term investment and a vision for growth in areas where the railway really excels. Having seen the boost London is enjoying from rail regeneration with new links and services, the Government should be pursuing this in its political homeland in the south. Look how successful reopenings have proved in Scotland and Wales – far exceeding the original usage predictions on which their business cases were originally calculated.

What we have before us is a very sensible and straightforward scheme. It makes economic sense to expand and capitalise on what assets you already have. The Uckfield line was always British Rail’s second Brighton Line and can be again. I understand Network Rail estimated £108m to reopen these seven miles in 2008. Well, that has to be an incredibly popular and worthwhile investment in infrastructure – just the kind of project which David Cameron keeps saying he’s looking for in order to get Britain and the economy on the fast track to recovery.

As well as going into Lewes and serving Eastbourne and Newhaven, BML2 takes people and trains straight into Brighton and that’s why I strongly support it. You couldn’t reverse at Lewes all the extra trains we need to run between London and Brighton, so we need the tunnel under the South Downs to deliver in terms of speed, efficiency and attractiveness to the public.

BML2’s other strength for Brighton is that it puts Falmer on a fast main line to London. The AMEX Community Stadium is proving an enormous success and has, I’m delighted to say, defied its critics. In fact it has proved so popular that efforts are in hand to increase parking, but BML2 would transform access with direct train services from London and towns across the South East. This would be a win for the environment, the stadium, the city and the local economy.

With two main lines to London, we would never again be cut-off for hours, days or weekends, whenever something goes wrong or needs renewing. We know the cost to Network Rail is substantial, but the knock-on effect to the city’s economy, as well as individuals affected by the disruption is equally serious. BML2 opens up greater choice for commuters who would have a new range of destinations as well as fare and travel options before them.

As construction on London’s Crossrail forges ahead, demand will inevitably increase for new feeder routes, whilst the pull factor of employment around Canary Wharf and the City of London will add to this pressure. If we can get commuters to Canary Wharf and other places without first having to unnecessarily crowd into London Bridge, then that will be a big bonus, not just for the south, but London too. As so often happens with infrastructure schemes of this nature, the benefits soon become apparent so people use them and then we have to be ready with the next phase.

I’m also keen on BML2 for the environmental benefits we’d gain in the south. Travelling down the Brighton Line you appreciate Surrey’s Green Belt and the North Downs near Redhill before reaching the Weald at Balcombe where you pass over the Ouse Valley on Rastrick’s marvellous viaduct, finally approaching the South Downs where your train passes beneath and into our buzzing city of Brighton. We have some glorious countryside which we need to look after and BML2 is by far the greenest way of moving thousands of people around on a daily basis.

The same goes for tourism, which is immeasurably important to Brighton and the South Coast. We want people to come here and enjoy the city, the seaside, the countryside and all that Sussex offers, which is why I’m such a strong supporter of this project.

Regarding my comment on the “bonkers priorities” coming from East Sussex County Council over its plans for a new road in Uckfield, I share the amazement of RAIL’s Business Editor, Philip Haigh, that ESCC is so blind to the regional benefits that it is prepared to jeopardise reopening the railway. As Philip says, there is a clash between perceived local needs being pursued by the county council and national priorities where Government transport ministers will be condemned as weak for failing to intervene. Despite the Conservative Party’s new ‘green’ image, we see the same old Tory road policies trumping rail projects in East Sussex, as though nothing has been learned in the four decades since the line closed.

As I said in the Brighton Argus recently, I am happy to work for the greater good because this project transcends political divisions and we should all be uniting to see it through. Ministers such as Theresa Villiers and Norman Baker both have form on this specific issue, so I ask them to get behind it. Similarly, those with a particular interest in transport like Boris Johnson should be backing BML2 to the hilt because it’ll be good for London, good for the south and everyone who lives here. Quite simply, BML2 deserves to win on environmental, transport, tourism and economic efficiency grounds – it has everything going for it.