Baker says new London – South Coast main line needed
Created on Monday, 04 July 2011 01:00
Published on Monday, 04 July 2011 01:00
“My enthusiasm for Lewes–Uckfield has not dimmed in the slightest and I can assure you I will do everything possible to move this forward”
A recent meeting between Norman Baker (Lewes MP and a Transport Minister) and Brian Hart (BML2 Project Manager) has not only clarified matters, but helped both towards understanding each other’s point of view.
Norman began by acknowledging “a need for significant enhanced capacity between the South Coast and London” and said that he fully recognized this fact and would shortly be looking at ways how this might be achieved. There was no disagreement over this problem, whilst the enduring capacity problems at East Croydon and London termini were equally pressing and required solutions.
Despite the spending cuts of the past year, Norman considered it an achievement of the coalition that major projects such as High Speed Two, Thameslink, Crossrail, further UK electrification and new train orders were still on course. Following the recent publication of Sir Roy McNulty’s Value for Money Review, he remains confident that significant savings could be made throughout the industry. Only recently, he told the Wealden Line Campaign that he will argue for these to be channelled into further rail investment and a better deal for the fare payer. In more specific terms he elaborated: “Part of the work we are undertaking into Network Rail will, I hope, drive costs down and mean that the reinstatement cost of a line such as Lewes–Uckfield per mile would be less than has generally been quoted. That is certainly one of the intentions of the exercise”.
In further regard to the transport project closest to him throughout his life in politics at a local and national level – and for which he is famously known – Norman was unequivocal in his determination to see the Lewes–Uckfield line reopened. This, he insisted, “has not dimmed in the slightest” and he was emphatic in his reassurance that he “will do everything possible to move this forward”.
Turning to the wider-focused Brighton Main Line 2 Project, Norman explained to Brian Hart: “I do understand why you wish to advance this, but you will understand that my fear is that every single addition to the re-opening of Lewes–Uckfield will increase the price and therefore potentially make the scheme less affordable. I am also concerned that BML2 potentially will generate more opposition than Lewes–Uckfield, not least from the National Park. I also believe there is a real risk that in order to keep costs down, a line to Brighton might proceed, but the spur to Lewes would not. Obviously that would be unacceptable to my constituents”.
In response, BML2’s Project Manager was equally at pains to reassure Norman of the Wealden Line Campaign’s continuing and unwavering commitment to seeing Lewes–Uckfield restored to the national network – nothing has changed on that score. It was a matter of some dismay and regret that a false notion had arisen in some quarters that Lewes and other towns along the East Coastway line were somehow being bypassed or sidelined. Nothing could be further from the truth and Brian Hart reiterated his passionate belief that BML2 actually made reopening south of Uckfield to Lewes, Brighton, Eastbourne, Seaford, etc., far more useful, worthwhile and financially attractive. However, he accepted it was best not to argue about individual goals, but instead share the common ground which existed between them. Norman agreed and felt that while they must accept each other’s differing opinion, it was important to concentrate on working towards the shared objective of re-establishing the Uckfield line’s connection to the South Coast.
With regard to the disappointing conclusion of the 2008 Lewes–Uckfield re-opening report, Norman said he believed the reason the study had failed was because “the ‘low cost’ scheme which was worked up by the County Council did not show sufficient benefits”. Consequently, he added, “there will have to be consideration as to what changes are necessary to ensure the scheme becomes viable as part of an alternative South Coast and London railway line”.
He further explained that the investigation had omitted taking into consideration the pressing need to fully-upgrade the route north of Uckfield. This would involve ridding the route of its restrictive single-line sections [carried out in 1990 by British Rail to save on track maintenance costs] and returning to double-line working with associated electrification of the 32-miles between Hurst Green in Surrey and Lewes. This would fill a strategic gap in an otherwise largely electric network. With higher line-speeds, faster and more intensive services would then be possible, whereby he believes train journey times between Lewes and London via Haywards Heath or Uckfield would be little different.
It remains his firm and long-held conviction that the problems plaguing the Brighton Line could be substantially eased by providing this additional main line between the South Coast and London, whereby East Coastway services would be able to switch to a much-revitalised Uckfield Main Line.
Brian Hart said he agreed with much of Norman’s analysis – most of which had originally appeared in Network Rail’s own confidential draft report – but which was subsequently deleted from the version approved by East Sussex County Council. He also agreed the Brighton Line’s capacity problems would be eased to some degree, especially if railheading to BML stations could be decreased; however, the BML2 Project Team is not convinced that simply re-opening Lewes–Uckfield on its own would ever address the severe and worsening capacity problems now facing the South East. Following the 2008 Lewes–Uckfield Study, Network Rail’s recent Route Utilisation Strategies and documents such as Planning Ahead have since revealed the alarming shortfall in capacity which is increasingly required by the network in the Home Counties south of the Thames. He also pointed out to Norman that Kent’s Tonbridge Main Line – between Tonbridge and Orpington – is now in an equally invidious position and identified by Network Rail to be ‘a major barrier to growth’.
Nevertheless, Brian Hart said afterwards: “I’m genuinely grateful for Norman’s invitation to talk things through and thereby clear the air so we each know where we stand. Although it appears I still have a long way to go to convince him about the widespread merits of BML2, I’m certainly not unsympathetic to his apprehension and obviously respect his position. We mustn’t forget we owe Norman an enormous debt because no other politician has so courageously stuck his neck out in pursuing the reopening of Lewes–Uckfield, challenging ministers in the House of Commons – and even the Prime Minister! Throughout my twenty-five years at the helm of this campaign I’ve dealt with many MPs and ministers, but no one has ever stuck to his guns and worked more diligently than Norman in seeing that this hugely important reopening scheme never got swept under the carpet. Neither has he spared those directly responsible for what happened in 1969 [when the railway was destroyed by a town centre road scheme in Lewes] and has openly criticised his own County Council for past blunders. This takes true courage and I admire him for his outspoken honesty and plain speaking in apportioning blame where it belongs.”
Whatever the next few months and years bring, we are confident that Norman will continue in the same vein by standing up for what he holds dear, whilst we are gratified to learn he accepts we must continue pursuing BML2, of which Lewes–Uckfield is a critically integral component.