BML2 and the bigger picture
Created on Tuesday, 21 June 2011 19:42
Published on Tuesday, 21 June 2011 19:42
The latest comments from transport journalists and broadcasters in support of BML2 have been extremely welcome. Christian Wolmar, Britain’s leading transport commentator, recently spoke about BML2’s benefits being “pound for pound” greater than those of High Speed Two (HS2) and went on to question the different approach being taken to these projects.
Of course, there are some very obvious distinctions between BML2 and HS2. To begin with, BML2 isn’t a high speed project and therefore has none of the attractive prestige which lures politicians. And because BML2 isn’t particularly glamorous – because it’s fundamentally about vastly increasing capacity between London and the South East counties of Kent, Sussex and Surrey – it lacks such appeal. It certainly doesn’t have the gargantuan price tag of HS2 and, by comparison, is an extremely modest project and costing (probably in sum total) about the equivalent of a new crossing over the Thames. Nevertheless, where HS2 and BML2 are identical has been spotted by Christian Wolmar who has drawn helpful comparisons. In commenting upon the Brighton line being “one of the most congested in the country” and alluding to the recent stymied attempt by Southern to put on just one additional service, he goes on to say:
“The case for BML2 looks, on the face of it, strong but, as Steve so aptly pointed out [RAIL 669], there is a very different approach between plans for the West Coast Main Line and for London – Brighton. Whereas the projected increased demand for West Coast is presented as the main reason why HS2 is needed, nothing is being suggested to cope with the rise in passenger numbers on the Brighton line. Now of course in an ideal world, both situations should be addressed, but we live in a time of severe cash constraint.”
Christian Wolmar isn’t convinced by the arguments for HS2 and doubts very much whether it would stand up to the same scrutiny if increasing capacity is the yardstick. Although we have no particular view either way about HS2, we do feel very passionate about BML2 because we know this is a project that would bring tangible and lasting benefits across the South East – which continues to become an increasingly crowded and congested part of the UK.
Politicians continue to tell us we must reduce our reliance on the car and opt for ‘greener’ modes of travel and favour rail. Yet, as soon as a truly effective project comes forward – and one which receives serious attention from commentators who know what they’re talking about – out comes the DfT’s book of lame excuses. We recently alluded to the current Rail Minister’s view that reopening the Uckfield line was “an issue of high importance” when she was opposition spokesman in 2008, whereas in Government Mrs. Villiers now tells Brighton Kemptown MP, Simon Kirby, her department has no plans to reopen the line. Why not? Surely, in the knowledge of continually rising congestion on the Brighton line – and now even on the Uckfield line – is this not a matter of even higher importance?
To his credit, Simon Kirby seems not at all satisfied with the answer he has been given and tells us he has since written to the coalition’s other Transport Minister and Lewes MP, Norman Baker. He says: “The re-opening of this line would achieve so many local goals. It would firstly ease pressure on the congested Brighton to London commuter line. It would boost tourism and visitor numbers to the area and it would bring more jobs and economic opportunity.I hope the Minister will see me, given his past support for this initiative, and we can work together in taking this matter forward.”
Whereas the Government’s officials lack long-term vision about tackling the underlying capacity problem on this region’s network (other than proposing extortionate commuter fares at peak times), Mrs. Villiers has nothing immediate to offer Uckfield line users. Following complaints that some commuters now have to stand from Crowborough (an hour from London) she signed off a letter from the DfT telling Energy Minister and Wealden MP, Charles Hendry, “no requirement has been identified for additional carriages to be provided in the short term”. It went on to say “In future, should increased demand require extra capacity, it may be that diesel carriages released by the electrification of other routes would be available for deployment on the line”. That is not a satisfactory solution to a network which is virtually all-electric.
Although Mrs. Villiers mentioned that her department was “supportive of progressive electrification of the rail network” and that the case for further electrification would be kept “under review”, this displays a disturbing absence of forward planning by DfT officials. Justification for this excuse comes with reference to Network Rail’s 2009 Electrification Strategy which concluded there was no case to electrify the Uckfield line. Although more electric rolling stock should be available to ease overcrowding, replacing the Turbostar diesel trains with electric units would not enable any increase in services – currently restrained to two per hour in each direction. This is because the line was partially reduced to single line in 1990 under Network South East and would require, in total, 12½ miles of track to be relaid to restore double-line working. Only this will enable greater frequency and much faster services.
And let no one forget that we are in this miserable position today as a direct consequence of East Sussex County Council’s Lewes town centre road scheme of 1969 which tragically severed the line and removed the Brighton–Uckfield–London and the Brighton–Tonbridge services – as Norman Baker has pointed out on numerous occasions. Otherwise, the Uckfield line would have been electrified and doing very nicely today. Instead, the ensuing thirty years brought further decline, singling, and the loss of the strategic links from Sussex and Surrey into Tunbridge Wells.
Understandably, a business case for an electrified, double-track main line, but terminating abruptly at Uckfield has been impossible to justify. This is why the short onward link to the coastal network is so critical. It is part of the bigger picture which myopic officials at the DfT are unable to grasp and which ministers continue to blindly follow. Labour’s Tom Harris, to his enduring credit, saw the potential and gave it his full backing, but regrettably was not around long enough to push it through.
Despite major rail projects and investment not being Norman Baker’s responsibility (this belongs to Mrs. Villiers) it’s not surprising that expectation continues for Norman to use his influence – as Christian Wolmar observed: “Surely his price for being in the government must be a commitment to reopen the Lewes-Uckfield line which runs into his constituency and has been a cherished project ever since he was elected”. But whereas it remains to be seen whether Norman Baker can exert sufficient influence regarding a scheme he tells us he still holds dear, his continuing reluctance to support BML2 is far from helpful. Brighton desperately needs a practical additional main line to the capital which will take the pressure off the BML and radically increase rail capacity between London and the South Coast. It cannot be done by only going into Lewes, as Norman suggests, and then expecting everyone to change trains here for Brighton. The traffic volumes which demand to be satisfied between London and Brighton require a simultaneous short direct link concealed under the South Downs, so that not only Lewes and East Sussex coastal towns benefit, but Brighton too, in an extension of the Uckfield line to the coast.
It is no accident that BML2’s enormous and widespread potential has attracted growing interest and support among more enlightened sectors of the rail industry, political circles and transport commentators. It delivers a lot “pound for pound” and gives a hitherto dubious project real value and usefulness in this developing century.
We are therefore extremely pleased that Newhaven Town Council is now leading the way among Sussex councils in coming out strongly in favour of BML2 by announcing: “The Council sees the many benefits to the local economy and to local residents that will derive from the restoration of the line between Uckfield, Lewes and the South Coast, and between the Uckfield Line and Tunbridge Wells”. Its resolution continues: “The Council sees particular benefits to Newhaven in the BML2 proposal as it would provide better links from Newhaven port and more opportunity to achieve modal shift from road to rail to provide a serious alternative to using the overcrowded road network for both freight and passenger traffic”. It also believes attention should be paid by the Government to seeing how BML2 could assist in linking up across, under, or around London to the Midlands and North, thus relieving development pressure in the South East, improving links with continental Europe and regenerating areas further North, adding: “Accordingly, the council calls on all concerned in local and national government to actively support BML2 and to campaign for its adoption”.
So congratulations Newhaven, it is refreshing to have such perceptive and strategic vision in looking at the bigger picture. We hope that others will follow this shining example.