TIME FOR NEW MAIN LINES IN THE SOUTH
Published on Wednesday, 20 July 2016 06:18
The new Government’s biggest challenge – building BML2 for more trains into London.
The political turmoil of the past few weeks has been phenomenal. We’re on our way out of the EU; we have a new prime minister and, within the last few days, we have a whole new government team. Amid all this, there is one consistency – the railways remain in deep crisis.
Here in the south there is virtual mutiny among commuters; large-scale and vociferous protests at Southern’s stations and London termini; whilst widespread discontent, frustration and sheer anger is being expressed at what’s going on. Calls for GoVia to be stripped of its Southern and Southeastern franchises are being made daily; petitions are flying around and placards are being waved. MPs have been demanding swift and decisive action from Rail Minister Claire Perry – who asserted that changing the train operator would solve nothing – and now even she has thrown in the towel and resigned.
The fundamental problems run far deeper than most people realize, whilst nobody seems to have a clue what to do. Having created a monster franchise in the first place, the Department for Transport is keeping its collective head down in case anyone starts apportioning blame at their door. In this fragmented mess there seems to be no overall control – and it is those ordinary ‘hard-working people’ (whom the outgoing David Cameron claimed to champion) who are suffering on a daily basis. Make no mistake; even if the current industrial dispute was solved tomorrow, the underlying situation will get even worse.
At the very least, the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, must demonstrate the same interest as his predecessor George Osborne in building new main lines in the south, as proposed by the Brighton Main Line 2 Project (BML2). Whatever Osborne’s faults or merits, he clearly recognized the intrinsic potential of the project to solve the horrendous crisis in the London and South East network.
Fortunately, Theresa May has already made her first good move by appointing Chris Grayling as Secretary of State for Transport. He is more than aware of the problems on the Brighton Line as, exactly a decade ago, on 21 July 2006, he wrote to the Wealden Line Campaign saying: “I can understand your interest in the scheme and appreciate the potential benefits of opening up the line to the South Coast through Uckfield.”
This was followed in May 2007 when, as Shadow Secretary of State for Transport, he wrote about the Conservative’s plan to protect certain key disused rail lines, with the Uckfield line being one of the top four they were most interested in. What Chris Grayling said ten years ago is even truer today: “There are towns and cities up and down the country where transport systems are bursting at the seams and it makes sense to protect old transport corridors from development. Too many developments are being planned without adequate provision for local infrastructure. In many cases, disused railway lines provide corridors into city and town centres. We want to make sure that there is adequate protection for potential public transport routes to help ensure that our towns and cities grow in sustainable ways.”
Even back in 2007, when Labour was in Government, the Conservatives recognized the route’s value as the Grayling document said the Uckfield line: “– could act as a valuable relief line for the [Brighton] main line to the south coast from London.” Other recent Transport Ministers such as Justine Greening and Teresa Villiers have both confirmed it as “a viable proposition” as well as “an issue of high importance”. So why, year after year, does nothing ever happen? Why is no one bold enough to make these political decisions?
Given the fundamental lack of capacity, unreliability and daily chaos on the South’s rail network, no one is remotely interested in hearing about the new Government’s commitment to ensuring the mega-expensive and highly controversial HS2 goes ahead, come what may. Instead, it is now time for Theresa May to instruct the DfT to release Osborne’s Treasury-funded study into the BML2 Rail Project conducted by consultants WSP|Parsons Brinkerhoff.
It is also an opportune moment for Mrs May (whom we genuinely wish the best of luck) to invite high-profile investors around the table. The private business sector, both in the UK and overseas, has repeatedly expressed its keen and serious interest in participating by investing in worthy major infrastructure projects such as transport. However, reticence has noticeably been expressed when it comes to grandiose schemes such as HS2.
Also appointed to the new team is Brighton Kemptown MP Simon Kirby, who received a call from Prime Minister Theresa May at the weekend, offering him a Ministerial position as Economic Secretary to the Treasury in her new Government.
Simon Kirby has been a long-standing supporter of BML2 and we hope he will use his influence in his new post. Following a meeting with us in 2012 he said: “I was pleased to meet with representatives from the Brighton Main Line 2 campaign recently. As they know I am a supporter of their cause, and I was grateful to them for meeting with me to discuss this issue. They have made the argument that a second main line is the only realistic and cost effective means of overcoming the existing capacity problems that are clear to us all.”
We have been assured that Brexit will not affect investment in BML2 and we have every reason to believe this is true. That’s because thirty years ago, in 1986, the Wealden Line Campaign modestly sought the reinstatement of the 7-mile ‘missing link’ between Uckfield and Lewes to create another railway route between the Sussex Coast and London. This was ready to proceed at a cost of £6m (yes – £6m!) by British Rail which was allowed to put up 25% if the remainder was forthcoming from outside funders. The MEP for East Sussex at that time, Sir Jack Stewart-Clark, raised everyone’s hopes of European funding. But not a penny, let alone a cent, came our way – it all went to build super highways in Spain, Italy and France.
As Sussex MPs at a recent Select Committee meeting grilling Southern despaired: “Someone needs to get a grip”. This doesn’t mean just solving the current industrial dispute so we can return to our normal daily chaos of cancellations, late-running services, staff shortages, signalling problems, point failures, train breakdowns, etc. It means inviting investors to step up to the table to declare their interest by investing in building the new main lines proposed by BML2.
Fundamentally it’s all about providing far more capacity into the network so more trains can operate whereby all those ‘hard working people’ can rely on getting to work on time, comfortably and without delays. Transport is a pivotal element of a successful economy such as London, whilst nothing facilitates growth, prosperity and regeneration more than a new railway.
Post Brexit, so many new and exciting opportunities await this nation, which is now declaring itself open for business and investment on a global scale. BML2 is one enormously valuable transport scheme which offers so much opportunity for growth and prosperity across London and the South East – it has to be grabbed with both hands – and without any more delay.