Department for Transport denies indecisiveness over ‘capacity time bomb’
Published on Wednesday, 02 November 2016 06:38
Demand for rail travel has far outstripped available capacity –
the Government needs to sanction BML2 without further prevarication.
The Department for Transport has denied it is deliberately delaying publication of the long-awaited London & South Coast Rail Study. However, City of Brighton & Hove MPs, Caroline Lucas and Peter Kyle, have lost patience with the Government over what they perceive to be reluctance in releasing this long-overdue report. The primary purpose of the analysis is to determine whether a second main line (BML2) is needed between the capital and the Sussex Coast.
Instigated by the previous Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, the costly £100k Treasury-funded study, carried out by London-based consultants WSP Parsons Brinkerhoff, was deemed urgent and was originally ordered to be delivered to Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin before the end of last year. In January, Rail Minister Claire Perry told MPs publication would be in early spring, although a few months later she resigned her unhappy ministerial position following the horrendous ‘summer of discontent’ across Southern services. MPs were then told it would appear this autumn.
With the situation on the railways worsening and exasperated by a lack of progress, Green MP Caroline Lucas recently tabled a Commons Question, specifically asking Transport Minister Paul Maynard if he will: “publish the London and South Coast Rail Corridor Study” as well as: “whether he plans to fund proposals for a Brighton Mainline 2 in order to remedy the significant capacity and performance constraints identified.”
The written answer she received blandly read: “The Government will publish the London and South Coast Rail Corridor Study, and its response to the recommendations, in due course.” Unimpressed, Caroline Lucas, who consistently fights very hard on behalf of Brighton commuters, roundly condemned the response as “rubbish”.
Equally frustrated at the apparent prevarication was Hove’s Labour MP Peter Kyle. He told the City’s Argus newspaper: “We’ve had a new Chancellor, new Rail Minister and new Government since they first promised this report and still passengers suffer every day. As well as doing everything I can to get the current mess sorted out, I am pressing the Government to deal with the long-term capacity time bomb that will explode on to the next generation of passengers if we don’t get this right. I’m calling for this report to be released before Christmas at the very latest.”
It is believed the consultants delivered their report to the Government quite some months ago, whilst the Department for Transport confirmed to Peter Kyle that the study had, in fact, been completed. However, the DfT insisted that the findings were now being “carefully considered by ministers”. Even though a publication date for the long-delayed report has still not been announced, a source has indicated it would be on 23 November as part of Chancellor Philip Hammond’s Autumn Statement.
We have since heard that the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and Tunbridge Wells MP the Rt Hon Greg Clark, is to write to Rail Minister Paul Maynard for an explanation.
In a similar development, the DfT responded to one of Southern’s Uckfield Line commuters, who spontaneously wrote to the Secretary of State the Rt Hon Chris Grayling over the desperate need for BML2 to happen. Completely putting to one side the current industrial unrest, William Harrison outlined the never-ending problems he endures across the South, fundamentally caused by an insufficient network which needs heavy investment and enlarging. Particularly stressful for him is Southern turning back its delayed evening peak trains at Crowborough and short of their Uckfield destination. Everyone is asked to leave the train, including of course William and his faithful guide dog Texan. This practice allows the delayed service to head back to London on time – and thus without penalty to train operator Southern.
The DfT told William what he already knew – that Brighton lost its secondary main line when the short Lewes–Uckfield section was closed in 1969. It should also be pointed out that, at the same time, Tunbridge Wells lost its direct main line to London via Oxted. As the DfT mentioned, this left only a skeleton service between Sussex and Kent (Eridge–Tonbridge) which was withdrawn in 1985. Consequently, the South East lost two very important strategic main lines. The capacity crises now affecting both the Brighton and Tunbridge Wells/Tonbridge main lines are a direct result of these foolish closures.
The DfT acknowledged: “Local aspirations to reopen the line are long-standing and well understood by Government and the rail industry. People face considerable frustration in moving between the towns by road, whether by car or public transport.”
However, the response went on to say: “The key challenge with reopening the [Wealden] line is that it would involve significant construction costs and the local demand and wider benefits would be potentially insufficient to make the scheme economically and financially viable.”
This is a deplorably poor response; identical to all the tired excuses which have been made time and again over forty years for shamefully ignoring the South East and doing nothing. It indicates that the DfT imagines this is a local problem, confined to the borders of Sussex and Kent. More worryingly it demonstrates they still can’t see the wood for the trees and have precious little grasp of the fundamental problems.
If demand is so low, why has strong and unrelenting public support for these strategic rail connections to be restored been sustained throughout four decades? Why have innumerable serious studies been conducted into reinstating the routes – by British Rail (1971); Network SouthEast (1987); Railtrack (2000); Connex (2001); Network Rail (2008)? Why have numerous consultants such as Atkins; Buchanan; Steer Davies Gleave; Intermodality; Bride Parks; Mott MacDonald – and now WSP|Parsons Brinckerhoff been hired to produce substantial reports?
This issue has been a festering sore for almost half a century – a fact highlighted by ex-Chancellor George Osborne when he courageously spoke up for the South by rightly defining Sussex as: “a part of the country so often ignored or left behind under previous Governments.”
The DfT’s letter to William continued: “In 2015, in recognition that further work is needed, the former Chancellor commissioned the London and South Coast Rail Corridor Study, which looks broadly at the region’s rail transport needs. The Study considers the case for investment in the Brighton Main Line, re-opening the Wealden line and the Lewes–Uckfield line, as well as the ‘BML2’ concept, for a new mainline to London.”
So this month we may discover whether the Government intends kicking this particular can yet further down the road, or whether it understands the widespread benefits of BML2 and is prepared to back the project. The DfT concluded: “Our response to the Study will need to account for rail investment priorities across the country. Later this year, the rail industry will present its initial advice on investment needs for the national network, for 2019 onwards. On the basis of this advice, Government intends to articulate its emerging priorities for improvements to the national network during 2017. The Government will publish the London and South Coast Rail Corridor Study, and its response to the recommendations, in due course.”
There is no need for further prevarication, dithering or indecision. This long-ignored crisis is now on our doorstep – quite honestly what further evidence do we need? Firm, clear-sighted and decisive action must now be taken. Lord Adonis, Chairman of the Government’s National Infrastructure Commission succinctly summed it up in 2013: “It is stark staring obvious that the second main line to London in needed. Substantially increasing capacity into our cities remains the industry’s greatest challenge. BML2 – by reconnecting Brighton with London as one seamless journey – has the potential to do this. It is therefore a strong contender for serious investment because it would strengthen the existing overloaded network.”
After nearly fifty years – what more evidence do we need?