Brighton Line crisis looms nearer while Baker joins fight for train paths.
Published on Tuesday, 21 August 2012 09:21
Network Rail’s Sussex Route Utilisation Strategy (2010) estimated peak capacity on the BML would be reached at the end of this decade, but a number of learned sources are now convinced this will occur much sooner.
The ‘breathing space’ offered by the Thameslink Programme, which plans extending all BML trains to 12-cars, is increasingly diminishing. These new trains, which ominously promise ‘reduced seating and greater standing capacity’, have not yet been ordered, whilst even Network Rail predicted this additional capacity would be swallowed-up by rising demand come 2020. In short, congestion on the BML will be no better than today. So what encouraging suggestions can we expect to see put forward as the DfT’s Consultation on the new Thameslink franchise ends on Thursday this week?
In Sussex, Eastbourne Lib Dem MP Stephen Lloyd launched his ‘London in 70’ campaign. He believes the current service is “slow, over-crowded and over-priced” and was recently given the opportunity to meet DfT officials to press his case. He urged them to cut-out stops and eliminate the practice of joining/splitting trains at Lewes and Haywards Heath so that Eastbourne could have express services taking no more than 72 minutes. Unfortunately, his proposal would not only remove the few through services to London for Seaford/Newhaven commuters, but have serious knock-on effects on the BML.
It’s an unhappy fact that commuter services in Sussex (and parts of Kent) are now slower than the mid-1960s, a criticism favoured by Lewes Lib Dem MP and Transport Minister Norman Baker. Back in 1965, Eastbourne’s fastest service to London was 88 minutes, whereas today the average peak hour journey time is 95 minutes. Lewes was 66 minutes, whilst today it takes 70. But nowhere has benefited unfairly, because even Brighton’s fastest services, once accomplishing the 50-miles in 60 minutes, now range between 65 and 75.
Norman Baker has recently written to all the chief executives of the five train operating companies bidding for the new Thameslink franchise with his views on what he wants done. These are reported as reducing journey times for his Polegate constituents to London; markedly reducing the splitting /joining of East and West Coastway services at Haywards Heath; reducing general overcrowding; tackling the East Croydon bottleneck; and working with Network Rail to reopen the Uckfield line. However, Norman is determined that only Lewes would be directly connected to the new main line and, contrary to popular belief, he remains steadfastly opposed to the Brighton Main Line 2 Project with its additional and vital link running straight into Brighton.
Nevertheless, he considers he has highlighted the key issues and told Brighton’s Argus newspaper: “I expect them to take my comments on board and ultimately, if they are the successful bidder, to provide a service for my constituents which improves travel conditions, increases capacity, provides faster services to the capital and ultimately provides a better service for local passengers.”
The Sussex Express explained that the Lewes MP has asked the bidders: ‘to commit to rectifying the bias which is currently given to the north – south mainline between Brighton and London at the expense of services to Eastbourne and Worthing’. These services have to combine at Haywards Heath because there are no spare train paths on the congested route, but Norman Baker says this is ‘over prioritisation of services between the capital and Brighton.’
However, strong disagreement was expressed by a spokesman for Brighton & Hove City Council who said the administration is ‘committed to ensuring that any new franchise gives consideration and priority to services to and from Brighton and Hove which must be maintained and free flowing.’
It is only to be expected that MPs will seek to use their influence to benefit their particular patch but, as Network Rail is well aware, Sussex railways are now the most congested in the UK. Consequently, we’d be astounded if already scarce paths were handed over for dedicated Polegate and Eastbourne express services to the detriment of Brighton. The BML has no spare capacity for additional trains to run, whilst lopping 25 minutes off Eastbourne journey times is plainly unrealistic.
There are only three ways in which travel times between the Sussex Coast and London could be substantially reduced: 1) Spend many billions on an entirely new, non-stop high-speed railway: 2) Close virtually all intermediate stations on the existing Brighton Line and its east and west coastway feeder routes: 3) Drastically reduce the quantity of services so only very fast trains (which require extended headways) operate.
Clearly, none of this is ever going to happen.
The southern region is a complicated, inter-connecting network of lines, serving a large commuting population and has to operate intensive services carrying enormous volumes of people every single day. We also have London’s second busiest airport traffic to manage. Furthermore, quite apart from commuters, some routes are increasingly busy throughout the day and the growing strain is beginning to show. The south’s predicament is not a lack of speed, but a growing shortage of capacity and it is this problem, above anything else, which demands our utmost attention.
There is, of course, hope on the horizon with BML2 which is perfectly capable of delivering vast amounts of new capacity into London from Kent, Sussex and Surrey. More trains, a larger and more robust network, new journey opportunities, improved airport connections, new cross-regional services, an alternative route in emergencies – all would be possible and within reasonable funding parameters. It’s precisely the kind of infrastructure project to boost economic growth and stimulate investment, but it needs political vision and leadership.
As well as Lord Bassam of Brighton, two of the city’s MPs Simon Kirby and Mike Weatherley have already shown interest, the latter asking us to produce a succinct and coherent plan addressing the Government’s concerns over BML2 – and in particular how Government could tackle the problems on the London end of the project. We’ll certainly do our best.
Meanwhile, criticism rumbles on over the paucity of any targeted investment in the south to address these issues within the Government’s recent £9.4 billion spending on rail. The knowledgeable columnist Barry Doe, writing in RAIL, observed: “despite the supposed interest of the local MP Norman Baker, there was not a crumb for Uckfield – Lewes, nor even electrification from Hurst Green.”
Similar sentiments expressed by Christian Wolmar clearly upset Norman, whilst our recent website piece ‘What price loyalty as Tories snub Baker?’ was taken as personal criticism of his position, prompting him to ask if we would accept a response which he has told us he’d like published with the same prominence.
(Journey comparisons quoted from current timetable and ‘Southern Travellers’ Handbook’ published by British Railways 1965)