A Strategy for Growth now published.
Created on Monday, 21 March 2011 00:00
Published on Monday, 21 March 2011 00:00
The launch of the BML2 Project last year and the publication of Network Rail’s various Route Utilisation Strategies (RUS) for Sussex and Kent focus attention on the south’s already “full-up railway”. Trains are increasingly badly overcrowded in the rush hours, so the aim is to lengthen them all, wherever possible, to 12-cars. But this is only a quick-fix solution, because commuter traffic is set to grow in the next twenty years in the London & South East region by 30%, whilst the train companies tell us some parts of the network already remain busy all day. So where is the bigger plan?
Lack of capacity doesn’t just mean too many people crammed into carriages. It’s really about finding more train paths, because there is a limit to how many services can be run on a section of railway and the necessary interval of minutes between these trains. The Brighton Line is a good example of a “full-up railway” with no spare train paths – and it’s going to carry on getting busier all the time. Wishful demands for more trains and much faster, more reliable services simply cannot be met, whilst closing routes like the BML at weekends for engineering works understandably causes great upset. And now we learn that the Tonbridge Main Line is in an equally invidious position.
Unhappily, the draft London & South East RUS, which will appear in its final version in the summer, currently offers no solutions to accommodate growth on the rail network across Kent, Sussex and east Surrey. These documents are supposed to be blueprints for the long-term, because providing the capacity so pressingly needed requires years of planning and engineering. Instead, all they can think of is choking-off demand by substantially raising fares in the busiest hours in the seemingly desperate hope that people will travel either much earlier or later to work. Forcing commuters to pay a lot more for nothing in return will rightly be condemned as a wholly inadequate and unsatisfactory proposition.
In fairness, it’s easy to criticize the railways, which are increasingly expected to provide a faultless 21st century train service on a 19th century framework which was badly neglected and even wrecked in places during the latter decades of the 20th century. With ‘stakeholders’ invited to submit comments about the draft L&SE RUS, we may anticipate unrealistic demands for all sorts of extra services, stopping at more stations – but still arriving in London much faster than today. This simply cannot happen. HS1 aside (because that operates as a spin-off from the Channel Tunnel Rail Link), we shall never see high speed services in this region – the southern simply isn’t that kind of railway. We must accept it will always be an intensive, closely-knit urban and relatively short-distance system with, if we’re lucky, a bit of 90mph running thrown in wherever and whenever possible.
So, what can be done? Well, we believe an awful lot actually. If the rail industry looks seriously at BML2 and considers it not as one daunting hurdle, but something that can make progress in stages, then hope appears on the horizon and we finally have a way out of this seemingly inescapable conundrum. The key is clearly the southernmost extension of the Uckfield railway directly into Brighton under the South Downs and simultaneously into Lewes and Eastbourne. This immediately guarantees the business case to return the Uckfield route to its former main line status with redoubling, electrification and increased line speeds. The huge win, as Strategy for Growth demonstrates, is a minimum 50% increase in train paths (and therefore capacity) between London and Brighton. This means everyone can travel into work at a reasonable hour and businesses can operate normally and rail services between Brighton and London will always be maintained.
However, BML2 goes even further than this. Because the route usefully heads towards west Kent, it not only connects into the key hubs of Tunbridge Wells/Tonbridge, but the second string to its bow is its huge potential to relieve the equally-overloaded Tonbridge Main Line. In the desperate search for additional capacity, this could almost be coined a ‘buy one get one free’ project.
Possibilities exist to upgrade and intensify the route towards and into London, with more practical and realistic solutions to the East Croydon bottleneck. These will improve the situation for both longer-distance commuters and Greater London travellers. All forms of public transport should exist side by side, not in conflict, but in co-operation and to the mutual benefit of everyone. We really can have both. We know we cannot solve those final few miles into London but, as we have been told, BML2 “gets us nearer to where we want to be” and that is the rapidly expanding eastern area of the capital.
It is for the great minds and those with the skills and the power to make things happen to now come together and put the flesh on the bones of this outstanding scheme. BML2 is not of local insignificance, but one of regional magnitude involving London and its essential connections. And, as we have more than hinted at in this document, BML2 can go even further into the future, although it really is not for us to go so far into such unchartered territory.
Our only hope is that A Strategy for Growth will be thoughtfully considered by open minds and with an attitude towards substantially improving and expanding the railways in this region. Good projects are not dependent upon multi-billion price tags with accompanying eye-watering consultants’ fees. The BML2 concept comes free, whilst we believe there are massive opportunities to develop wasting, dormant assets which can be used to everyone’s ultimate benefit and maximum advantage. It is a project for London and the South East.
Now download our detailed response to Network Rail's "London & South East Route Utilisation Strategy". The 27-page document entitled "A Strategy for Growth" can be downloaded for printing or viewing on-screen. It is available only in pdf format and the file size is approx 3.4Mb.