Baker dismisses BML2 while blaming Brighton Line congestion on competition
Published on Thursday, 30 August 2012 09:43
In a BBC interview on Radio Sussex on Bank Holiday Monday, Transport Minister and Lewes MP Norman Baker was questioned about the worsening capacity crisis on the Brighton Main Line and his Government’s lack of a lasting solution. Beyond lengthening all trains to 12 cars, the current administration has nothing to offer, except charging ‘super-peak’ fares to discourage people from travelling by train between 8am and 9am.
The Lib Dem Minister said: “The line is very full at some times of the day, there is no spare capacity and there’s basically a train at every signal and clearly that’s not sustainable.”
When questioned about his allegation of bias towards Brighton over other Sussex towns, he laid the blame squarely on competition, saying: “At the moment there are two separate franchises, one for Southern and one for First Capital Connect and they’re competing for business to Brighton and that means in my view the overlaid services to Brighton.”
Whether such a fundamental policy view on competition is shared by his fellow Conservative ministers and Brighton MPs would be interesting to know.
Asked about the Brighton Main Line 2 Project, Norman said: “Brian and I have slightly different views on what should happen. I want to reopen the Lewes-Uckfield line, Brian is talking about something brand new which is effectively from Uckfield to Brighton which is not quite the same thing, but I think Lewes-Uckfield does make sense and I’ve asked each of the five companies that I’ve written to, to set out their position on that.”
The Wealden Line Campaign has always been clear that it remains firmly behind rebuilding exactly the same railway south of Uckfield and running into Lewes. The only difference is that BML2 incorporates a new 2½ mile link directly towards Brighton, most of which is in a 1½ mile tunnel beneath the South Downs.
Turning to the debate on attaining more capacity in the south, Norman said: “My view in the medium term is that we need to have an alternative line from the Sussex Coast to London because the capacity issues are such that you can only get so many trains on the Brighton Main Line, even with new signalling and everything else and if you had a line which went from Seaford up through Lewes, up to Uckfield to East Croydon and to London that way, that would provide extra capacity.”
The BBC interviewer then asked about BML2 – “the new line from Falmer” which heads through a South Downs tunnel, suggesting: “– there’s no chance of this happening, is there?” to which Norman responded: “I don’t think there is, no, I don’t think there is.”
Sounding more like he was talking about HS2, Norman claimed: “It would be very, very expensive, it would also be very controversial and the last thing we want is a controversial line. We want to get public support united for reopening Lewes-Uckfield, which is what we have got by and large; people are very supportive of that concept and the matter of increasing the cost and increasing the controversy isn’t the way to get this line reopened.”
The BBC show’s host referred to a caller, who was frustrated by conditions on the BML and compared the billions allocated for the proposed HS2 between London and Birmingham “to save 20 minutes” and who then asked why such money wasn’t being invested in the south.
Norman Baker responded: “The high speed line is not about saving journey time, it’s about the capacity issues north of London and the high speed line is actually the best answer to capacity issues.”
He finished by saying: “I’m very hopeful that one of my key demands may well be met which is the ending of the splitting of trains at Haywards Heath which, if we did manage to get rid of that, would cut journey times to Lewes and Eastbourne and Worthing by eight to ten minutes.”
Way back in 1987 the Wealden Line Campaign tried promoting the idea of a new fast main line between London and Seaford, whilst in 2000 Connex suggested diverting Eastbourne services via Uckfield on a new ‘Wealden Main Line’. However, the DfT and rail industry have persistently said the case is too weak because trains on a reinstated Lewes–Uckfield link would face towards Eastbourne, rather than Brighton. That is largely why the 2008 Lewes-Uckfield Reinstatement Study failed.
Project manager Brian Hart said: “I’m rather fond of Seaford, but it plainly isn’t Brighton. The world has moved on since the Campaign started in 1986 and Norman was just a district councillor. Rail demand has rocketed dramatically and to such a point that the Brighton Line is now in very serious trouble. We have to answer today’s problems and that’s why BML2 was developed and is so necessary.”
Campaign chairman, Cllr Duncan Bennett agreed, saying: “Brighton & Hove is the South Coast’s premier destination and for many thousands of people it is an exciting, vibrant place to live, work and visit. Fast new rail connections into and out of the city as well as a direct relief line are needed – not forcing Brighton commuters and day trippers to get out and change trains at Lewes.”
BML2’s additional link through to Brighton could be built for less than £100m whilst the whole of BML2’s Sussex Phase – redoubling, electrifying and opening the Uckfield line directly into Lewes and Brighton would be half the cost of other schemes rejected by Network Rail.
Duncan Bennett said he was dismayed Norman Baker appears unable to see beyond his own constituency interests, rather than the greater good for Sussex – “In this instance he needs to be more the Minister than the MP”.