Due to unprecedented interest, the Department for Transport had to extend its consultation for the new franchise combining Thameslink & Southern. However, great things must not be expected because no train operator can provide the fundamental improvements the network requires.
Until the Government through the DfT invests significant sums of money in the region, the underlying intractable problems cannot be solved. The enduring weaknesses of both the Brighton and Tonbridge main lines – Network Rail’s ‘major barriers to growth’ – are exposed by the DfT’s warning that the system cannot support any increase in services.
Recently-displaced Rail Minister Theresa Villiers admitted the Thameslink Programme was no long term solution – but this is what the railway desperately needs. So the overwhelming problem of insufficient track capacity remains unresolved.
A 30% increase in demand by 2020 from rail and air passengers using the Brighton Line looks increasingly like a serious underestimation. A fortnight ago, the Office of Rail Regulation reported a 5.4% increase in passenger journeys on London & South East services during April-June, whilst the number of passengers travelling ‘in excess of capacity’ has risen by 3.2%.
Of course, more people using trains should be wonderful news, because all political parties encourage this, but the Government and its Ministers – who insist having control over our railways – are failing the south and here’s why.
The DfT admits there are many problems with this franchise. For example it warns: The BML timetable pattern and the volume of service is dictated by the Thameslink core through Blackfriars. (Effectively capping growth on the capital’s north – south corridor).
No room to run any more trains than operate today. (That’s unacceptable – growing demand needs to be accommodated).
The constraint of the two-track only Brighton – Three Bridges section. (Clear evidence that a second Brighton main line is urgently required).
A need to improve performance and reliability on the BML. (Quite impossible until the strain is eased with BML2).
The continuing vulnerability of the BML during emergencies and the absence of an efficient and effective diversionary route. (Having no solution is a glaring failure).
The DfT also says: “The Government believes good connectivity with our major airports is essential” – but this is impossible to provide on the BML, which is why BML2’s London Phase linking Gatwick and Stansted with direct shuttle services through Canary Wharf and Stratford needs investigation.
So what needs to be done? We believe political short-termism is seriously harming the railway. Until far-sighted schemes are in place, the refranchising process risks being a wasteful, irrelevant and unpopular label-changing exercise.
Lack of capacity, the need to tackle constraints and bottlenecks with solutions which work are challenges for Government and rail industry, whilst those contracted to run our trains should be looking to tap into vibrant new markets.
The 2008 Study needs reappraising, but will reach the same conclusions unless Network Rail factors in BML2. The project’s direct link into Brighton changes the entire business case, making it extremely robust. We’re advised the phasing should be: Sussex, Kent, and then London.
The Sussex Phase alone achieves an immediate increase in capacity whereby BML2 trains could start at Brighton. Better utilisation of the Uckfield line’s six peak hour paths into London would be just the start, as this table shows:
This has no detrimental impact on East Croydon or London terminals. Having all 12-car trains start from Brighton is purely illustrative, some could start from Eastbourne, or 8 cars from Brighton and 4 from Eastbourne might join at Uckfield. With Phase One open, Sussex would instantly gain the fastest and shortest alternative route.
The future opening of the London Phase would enable a dramatic increase in services operating widely across Sussex, Kent and Surrey.
COSTING THE INITIAL SUSSEX PHASE:
All are ‘base case’ figures used in the 2008 Study which do not include Network Rail’s 30% for ‘contingencies’ or the DfT’s insistence on adding a 60% ‘optimism bias’.
This Phase requires the redoubling of single-line sections (totalling 12½ miles) on the Hurst Green – Uckfield section, electrification, and extending direct routes into Lewes and Brighton.
Redoubling and electrifying Hurst Green – Uckfield (25 miles) would cost £85m. Reopening Uckfield – Lewes (7½ miles) as electrified double track would cost £143m.
Using these same infrastructure costs, the new 2½ mile electrified double-track link towards Brighton would cost £87m. The costliest item is Ashcombe tunnel (£53m – based on Arup’s North Downs tunnel on HS1).
Altogether this totals £315m. To this, Network Rail would add 30% and the DfT 60% thus raising it to £656m. This provides a new main line between London and the South Coast. Put into context, remodelling and upgrading Reading station is costing £895m, whilst the Birmingham Gateway project is £600m.
An early political decision favouring BML2 is needed, but an immediate first step must be Network Rail securing strategic land at Uckfield – as urged back in June by Lord Berkeley.
Planning the Kent Phase must also start, as should exploration of BML2’s London Phase. This strategic corridor through eastern London as part of Crossrail’s further development at Stratford is essential. The entire BML2 scheme could then be in place well before 2030.
Squandering £Ms on re-branding trains, stations etc, does absolutely nothing for everyone who daily struggle on overcrowded lines into London.