South will stagnate without BML2
Published on Monday, 27 February 2012 07:32
“There are many rail schemes, crying out for far smaller sums than HS2, which could offer a bigger impact pound for pound. An excellent example is BML2.”
- Christian Wolmar, Transport Writer and Broadcaster
Sussex railways are the most congested in the UK. Despite all Brighton Line trains being maximum (12 car) length in the next few years, demand is rapidly outstripping capacity. By 2020 even the longer trains – which will have less seating and more standing room – will be just as overcrowded as today.
Disruption on the Brighton Main Line (BML) will continue through train breakdowns, point failures, signalling problems, bad weather, accidents, suicides, engineering works, etc, etc. It’s already impossible to run more trains, expand services to other towns, or offer passengers greater choice and much-needed alternative routes into London from the south.
Kent’s Tonbridge Main Line (TML), similarly described by Network Rail to be “a major barrier to growth”, is in the same invidious position. But between these two arterial routes into London is the former main line to Uckfield which, until 1969, ran directly into Brighton and into Tunbridge Wells. It is no coincidence that the BML and TML are now in serious trouble. The absurdly under-used Uckfield line is perfectly capable of being a main line once again and relieving both its neighbouring overloaded lines. It is a classic example of all that is wrong with short-term transport policy in England.
The blame rests squarely with Government intransigence. The Uckfield line is restrained by single-line sections due to ‘rationalisation’ in 1989 – approved by Mrs. Thatcher’s Transport Minister, Michael Portillo. This misguided attempt to avoid a growing backlog of track maintenance costs restricts the route to providing just a half-hourly service. Similarly, the stubborn refusal to electrify the 25 miles south of Oxted to Uckfield, let alone reinstate the seven miles to the coastal network, is another example of the Government seriously failing the south.
The Government is perfectly aware of how embarrassingly successful rail schemes have proved. Both Scotland and Wales have benefited enormously in the past decade. Every reopening and upgrade has far-exceeded the pessimistic passenger demand assessments.
Even the limited peak hour services running on the Uckfield line are now busier than they’ve ever been. Commuters have to increasingly stand in aisles, perch in luggage compartments, or drive elsewhere, but it’s pretty much the same everywhere. Some commuters head to Haywards Heath and other BML stations where they can park and have more frequent services. But railheading concentrates overloading and the BML can’t support any more trains – it’s a full-up railway.
Everyone seems to agree, train operators included, that more trains need to run between the Sussex Coast and London, as well as Tunbridge Wells and London to relieve the equally congested TML. Because the Government, the Department for Transport and Network Rail between them will not promote expansion of the south’s rail network, things can only get far worse as we head for stagnation.
The Government will not order any more new diesel trains to ease the crush. It won’t electrify, nor will it redouble the Uckfield line, even though it’s a trifling sum in transport budgets. It’s an unworthy don’t care attitude and a do-nothing transport policy. No vision, no ideas, no plan, no growth – and no hope.
Station parking at Uckfield hardly exists (approx 13 spaces) so commuters drive to the next station, Buxted, where they overspill into village streets and lanes. It is the same story at Eridge where most of the 220-plus cars park at crazy angles along the verges. At Uckfield, adjacent residential roads are clogged up. Nearby, the extensive goods yard and former station site has lain derelict for 20 years. This belonged to BR’s Property Board, now a ‘wholly-owned subsidiary of the Department for Transport’ – i.e. the Government. It has a price tag of between £3m - £4m but the Government says it wants the money from selling it to a developer – for housing.
Attempts to use the land for commuter parking have been consistently frustrated, not least by East Sussex County Council which will publicise plans in mid-March for a new road built across the trackbed as part of this development. A sop to commuters is the promise of a few public parking spaces (Network Rail discovered it was 38). This is for a town of 13,000 people. The site should be imaginatively developed for a proper double-track/two-platform station with multi-storey parking, an integrated transport hub with, most certainly, a new road, but one which includes a bridge over the railway. But this requires vision, good planning and consideration for the future.
This week it was announced that another 1,000 new houses will be built in Uckfield....
Network Rail told Tunbridge Wells Borough Council “Unfortunately High Speed One doesn’t put any more track into Tunbridge Wells.” It certainly doesn’t, but BML2 does. BML2 means reopening the Uckfield main lines into Tunbridge Wells and to Lewes, plus a new direct connection into Brighton and Falmer – the only way of relieving the Brighton Line. It is not just a reasonable and realistically affordable scheme, but one which supplies all the capacity the south needs. It also has practical solutions for opening new routes into London, new cross-connections and unlocking massive and exciting opportunities for future growth right across the south east as part of further Thameslink expansion.
But it seems the Government isn’t interested and won’t even listen to the case for BML2.
Instead, its preferred option is to attempt stifling demand by imposing punitive fares for travelling in the high peak hour. It’s an attitude which smacks of they’re only commuters after all and can’t do anything else but cough-up if they want to get into work.
Railways play a tremendously important role in the South East – outside as well as inside Greater London. Stifling growth and selling-off valuable assets for a mere pittance is not a transport policy.
It is no way to run a railway, let alone a country.