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bringing important railway connections together

Restoration of Sussex’s second-most important main line requires rebuilding the seven-mile ‘missing link’ between Uckfield and Lewes to provide a new direct route from Eastbourne, Seaford & Newhaven to London via Uckfield.

In addition, the construction of Ashcombe tunnel beneath the South Downs would be built to deliver a fast, direct link into the City of Brighton & Hove. This would put Falmer – the home of Brighton & Hove Albion Football Club (Amex stadium) and the University of Sussex – on a main line to London and make these important and expanding destinations more accessible from Sussex, Surrey, Kent, London and East Anglia.

The following is a synopsis based on Network Rail’s 2008 Study. A new station would be provided at Uckfield, located on the original site as indicated in the accompanying illustration. The former High Street level crossing would not be reinstated, but a new road built by East Sussex County Council would instead bridge the railway in the area marked.

Uckfield New Station

Two new 12-car platforms would be provided either side of the double-track route and there would be a footbridge connecting platforms whilst the existing modular station building would be dismantled and re-erected in its new position.

The former railway alignment between Uckfield station and the A22 bypass, now forming the southern edge of Bellbrook Industrial Estate, would be purchased. Trackbed protection policies have kept this clear of buildings and it is used mainly for storage bins or parking.

The A22 bypass would be raised to cross over the railway on a bridge. [East Sussex County Council pledged to build and fund this and associated works should the line ever be reopened].

The width of the rail corridor varies between 15 – 20 metres, the former measurement being the required boundary for new construction. Earthworks along the route will need assessment and strengthening where necessary, whilst the formation will have to be built to modern standards to accommodate double track and meet new railway requirements.

Similarly, all existing cast-iron and steel bridges on brick/stone abutments will need replacing with modern concrete structures, including culverts. Track would be installed to current Network Rail standards capable of a 100mph ruling line speed.

The double track route would be capable of supporting eight trains per hour each way.

Level crossings at Isfield, Anchor Lane and Barcombe Mills will not be reopened but substituted with bridges, though not necessarily at the same location. It is not proposed to reopen any intermediate stations.

The Uckfield line would join the Lewes-London line at Hamsey, but not using the original alignment of 1858-1868.

Brighton Main Line 2
BML2 assumes the route south of Uckfield would be built to exactly the same high specifications as set out above by Network Rail. Of crucial importance though is the additional 2½ miles of fast, direct main line into Brighton which can only be achieved with a new tunnel through the South Downs. At the same time it would be both practical and desirable to relocate the connection into Lewes and avoid Hamsey as much as possible (see diagram).

BML2 Connections to Coast

BML2 would pass underneath the London-Lewes line to enter the 1½ mile Ashcombe tunnel taking the railway almost entirely beneath the South Downs National Park. It would emerge on the southern side just west of the Kingston roundabout and cross over the A27 dual carriageway and almost immediately connect into the Coastway East line. On Brighton-bound trains the next station stop after Uckfield would be Falmer. This section would be resignalled to accommodate more intensive services being operated.

As BML2, the Uckfield line would carry additional direct trains between London and the Sussex Coast to both Brighton and Eastbourne, thus augmenting and relieving the adjacent Brighton Main Line.

For southbound passengers, Uckfield would operate in a similar manner to Haywards Heath. Those wanting Lewes (10 minute journey time) would board direct Eastbourne services; those requiring Brighton (20 minute journey time) would board the direct Brighton services calling at Falmer (13 minute journey time). With some services and should the need arise, it would be possible to join/split Brighton and Eastbourne portions at Uckfield.

For northbound passengers there is no need for BML2 Brighton to London services to serve Lewes. Those wanting Lewes may board any of the many trains already operating between Brighton and Lewes. However, Lewes will gain additional services to London from Eastbourne (or Seaford/Newhaven if preferred) via BML2.

Only BML2 can provide the necessary sufficient volume of trains and additional capacity required by Network Rail and the train operators between London and the Sussex Coast. When the railway line south of Uckfield was closed in 1969, it was not the loss of the physical connection between Lewes and Uckfield that was so damaging, but the loss of direct services between Brighton and London.

It is no longer feasible to reinstate the 1969 route through the centre of Lewes, nor is it necessary. However, subsequent reopening studies have focused on reopening a Hamsey connection which puts all trains facing towards Eastbourne, rather than Brighton, which destroys the business case. Reversing trains at Lewes results in movement conflicts even with a turnback siding, whilst it would be time-consuming and unattractive. But most of all, it would not be possible to operate the necessary volume of additional services to Brighton in this manner. Forcing people to change trains at Lewes would also remove any incentive to use the Uckfield line as an alternative to the BML.

Only BML2 is capable of providing the fastest and most convenient services to all destinations and pleasing everyone.

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Is BML2 just a fancy name for reopening the Uckfield to Lewes link?
No, it is a much better project which will achieve the goal of reopening this link. Before this section of line was closed, the route was worked with direct through services running between Brighton and London, as well as between Brighton and Tonbridge via Tunbridge Wells. The link was NOT closed as a result of the Beeching Report and British Railways had no intention of relinquishing this important secondary route between London and the Sussex Coast.

It was closed as a result of East Sussex County Council’s ‘Lewes Inner Relief Road Scheme’ the first stage of which required the closure and removal of the Uckfield line through Lewes town centre in 1969. Every reopening scheme since that time has only ever envisaged using a version of the early Victorian alignment (1858-1868) which ran via Hamsey between 1858 and 1868 (when the ‘improved’ direct line to Brighton through Lewes was opened 1868-1969). However, the big drawback with this old Victorian spur is that it would bring trains into Lewes ‘the wrong way’ – that is they would face towards Eastbourne rather than Brighton.

So why can’t we just reverse the trains at Lewes?
They can during emergencies, as occasionally happens when the BML is blocked between Wivelsfield and Brighton. However, to have timetabled trains constantly reversing would cause perpetual conflicts between train movements because Lewes isn’t a terminus. It would also be time-wasting and unattractive to rail users. Consultants Mott MacDonald attempted to devise a turnback siding in 1997, but it simply wasn’t practical. Lewes is also hindered by very severe speed restrictions, so London – Brighton journeys via Lewes would be frustratingly slow.

Couldn’t people just change trains at Lewes?
In theory yes, but that is a very unattractive option as people want direct journeys whenever possible. This is why all the previous studies into reopening have foundered, because the direct route to Brighton was lost. We have to accept that the City of Brighton and Hove is the principal driver of demand and growth.

Is it true BML2 would bypass Lewes?
Most certainly not – despite what some keep trying to suggest. The Wealden Line Campaign would never abandon Lewes, Eastbourne, Newhaven and Seaford in favour of Brighton. Following the disastrous conclusions of the 2008 Lewes-Uckfield Reinstatement Study by East Sussex County Council and Network Rail, this great project faced oblivion. Going to Lewes is equally justisfied, but we have to restore those all-important direct services between the Uckfield line and Brighton. Lewes would be overwhelmed if all rail traffic was sent through here.

Would the old Hamsey spur be relaid?
No. This connection was considered by Network Rail in 2008 but rejected in favour of a new alignment avoiding nearby dwellings and running slightly further west. BML2 proposes a slightly different connection into Lewes and a bit further away from Hamsey although it is of the same curvature as the Network Rail plan, so it would support modern day operation.

Is there any guarantee that Lewes wouldn’t be bypassed?
No one, including Network Rail (as they have told us) would build BML2 through to Brighton without an equal connection into Lewes. It’s important that Eastbourne and Seaford services can access the Uckfield line.

So why is BML2 so important?
It’s all about volume and additional capacity. It’s simply impossible to provide the necessary vast increase in the volume of trains and passengers between the Sussex Coast and London without BML2. Network Rail calculated that a reopened, double-track line south of Uckfield could support eight trains per hour each way (about one every 7-8 minutes in both directions). If you share these between Brighton and Lewes/Eastbourne etc, you can see how the volume is more than they actually require.

Doesn’t BML2 make it all too costly?
Absolutely not. For decades we have accepted the incremental approach – start small and build up gradually – beginning with the cheapest option, a basic single-line with diesel trains to avoid electrification costs. But this has failed every time without exception – as witnessed by the many studies and resulting weak business cases. BML2 is business-based and focuses on demand and solving the rail industry’s problems on the adjacent BML and elsewhere. It has been accepted that the 2008 Network Rail study showed beyond doubt that there was no economic case for a low-cost local railway. Only a main line project can provide the capacity and volume which a commuter-based economy needs. Its business case would be infinitely stronger. Unlike those who still argue for a ‘cheap’ scheme, we believe railways are extremely important and worth high capital investment.

How would the train service work?
People at Uckfield, Crowborough, Oxted, and all stations north thereof, as well as Tunbridge Wells, would have direct services to Falmer and Brighton. People wanting Lewes would board the direct services going to Eastbourne, or possibly Seaford. Heading north, Brighton people who want Lewes will board any of the many trains which currently go there, but if they want Uckfield line destinations and beyond then why would they want to go into Lewes? The new Ashcombe tunnel under the South Downs west of Lewes allows this to happen.

Isn’t a tunnel difficult and expensive to construct?
Not at all. New tunnelling methods have revolutionized construction – look at the huge machines building 42km / 26 miles of Crossrail tunnels under London. The 1½ mile (2.4km) Ashcombe tunnel would go through chalk – ideal tunnelling material (in geological terms this comprises the Seaford beds) It has been estimated that the entire tunnel and associated connections could be done for less than the cost of 2 miles of East Sussex County Council’s Hastings–Bexhill link road (£120m).

Wouldn’t it be controversial?
There’s no sound reason why. The tunnel would run only under downland and farmland. Both the railway and the trains it will carry would be entirely concealed beneath the undulating South Downs, whilst BML2 would only be visible at the northern end of the National Park for a very short distance.

At the tunnel’s southern portal it crosses almost immediately over the busy A27 dual carriageway and trains would not be heard above the constant roar of road traffic. Environmentally the railway is infinitely preferable as it would not carve through Sussex downland creating a vast cutting – as happened with the nearby A27 Lewes bypass.