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bringing important railway connections together

Creaking at the seams at Brighton Station

Creaking at the seams – the South East rail network needs radical expansion

This year the not-so-merry month of May brought predictable chaos on the Brighton Line during engineering occupations, ‘Meltdown Monday’ and continuing problems with Govia Thameslink’s rescheduling. Transport Secretary Chris Grayling furiously called the situation “wholly unsatisfactory”.

Most rail users know the current network across London and the South East simply cannot cope and needs radical expansion. Incredibly, calls for the restoration of former main lines in Sussex and Kent have persisted for almost 50 years when British Rail’s once-busy routes were so recklessly destroyed. Such turmoil will continue unabated – especially when no trains will operate for nine consecutive days in October between Brighton and Three Bridges – and again in February 2019. Nevertheless, a business case cannot be made solely on alternative routes in times of need, even though this is one extremely beneficial aspect of BML2.

With keen interest in the project being expressed by Chris Grayling, the government has responded with its ‘Market Led Proposals’ for transport. Alongside fully-booked seminars in London and Birmingham, a document has been published.

Mr Grayling explained: “We want to work with the private sector to identify investment opportunities for transport needs where the schemes fit best with the department and wider government’s priorities, and support the government’s strategic vision for rail.”

Clearly mindful of the limitations of the public purse, he continued: “By involving a more diverse range of parties including promoters, financial investors or a consortium of such parties, we want to enable new and innovative approaches to meeting community needs and reduce the call on taxpayers by building commercially sustainable transport businesses.”

In a direct invitation to potential funders he declared: “The department is keen to engage with promoters and investors of market-led proposals”. However, he fully appreciates investors will need assurances on financial return for such investment and the risks involved, whilst government will demand that such projects achieve overall network objectives.

The DfT document is open-minded and earnestly welcomes investors and consortia to come forward to: ‘Increase overall investment in the railway’. The government wants to: ‘Open up the development and delivery of rail infrastructure to take full advantage of new and innovative ideas’ and says emphatically: ‘By taking full advantage of innovative ideas that could have wider benefits or better economics, we want to encourage and facilitate proposals’. It hopes investors will be: ‘more likely to identify commercial opportunities that contribute to funding.’

As we recently reported, BML2’s backers have already said they can keep project costs and risks off the Treasury’s books.

Acknowledging the rail industry doesn’t have all the answers the document continues: ‘Government is keen to encourage new partners for infrastructure design, development and delivery.’

The government wants this initiative to deliver all the critical facets which BML2’s supporters say will accrue, viz: ‘Increased network capacity (e.g. reduction in overcrowding or increase in tonnage); Increased connectivity; Improved network reliability and resilience’. The DfT points to businesses which have already assisted funding transport infrastructure, for example Canary Wharf Group’s contribution to Crossrail.

BML2’s London Phase will facilitate huge traffic flows and reduce congestion at London Bridge and on the Thameslink route. This month the long-established Chinese company ABP London ‘topped-out’ the first phase of its massive Royal Albert Docks redevelopment. Its Chief Operating Officer John Miu said: “When the whole thing’s finished it will be the new heart of east London – it will turn into the high-tech gateway between Europe and Asia.” Alongside high-tech there will be commercial, residential, retail and parkland development. He explained: “We tap into many different international markets – not just Asia, China and Hong Kong but the Middle East, Singapore and locally in the UK and Europe”. There is enormous excitement and unwavering confidence in the UK and no anxiety over Brexit. Indeed, ABP’s representatives predict: “Royal Docks will become one of the most successful business districts in London.”

Simultaneously and just along the river, British Land is building a £2bn ‘new town’ in Docklands between the City and Canary Wharf with a new high street and a piazza the size of Leicester Square. Investment is pouring into what is rapidly becoming central London where a booming Canary Wharf population will rise from 120,000 to 200,000.

Similarly pertinent to BML2 is the recent publication of Network Rail’s South East Route Strategic Plan. Although this has been criticized for glossing over unpalatable reading, its honesty is commendable, even though it tells us what many of us have known for decades:
‘The infrastructure on South East route (outside of the central Thameslink areas) is amongst the oldest in the country, a position which has been worsened by deferral of [recent] renewals.’ Network Rail freely admits this has led to poor performance, high-impact failures, whereby major repairs and structural replacements are overdue on such a busy system.  ‘It is now clear that years of under-investment sits behind these factors’ – a failure we know harks back to the 1960s.

The authors highlight the South’s network extreme complexity – ‘12 of Britain’s 15 busiest flat junctions are on South East route; this means that small delays have a far-reaching impact.’ We all know how busy lines in London and the South East have become: ‘Passenger and freight demand has grown significantly over the past 10 years and expectations are for this trend to continue. This puts further pressure on the infrastructure and services, which are amongst the heaviest used - and of the highest criticality - in the country.’

What they’ve yet to concede is that we desperately need a bigger trainset.

To those who believe the South East gets everything, Network Rail points out that the South East route experienced the lowest levels of renewals expenditure (54% below the national average) and is amongst the lowest levels of maintenance expenditure (21% below national average). ‘The railway has been stretched to its limit, assets are ageing, and it is therefore unsurprising that performance levels are unsatisfactory.’

The report warns: ‘As demand continues to grow, there will be a need for increased capacity. The Brighton Mainline, in particular, is forecast to experience the joint highest overall levels of crowding of all London commuter routes. If action is not taken, this is forecast to lead to regular standing extending as far as the Sussex coast.’

The report talks about a ‘challenging operating environment’ whereas the promise of jam tomorrow is the so-called digital railway. Trains using the Thameslink core through London will henceforth operate a ‘metro-style frequency, controlled automatically but with driver supervision. Computer modelling predicts services will feed in from right across the network and run through Blackfriars at intervals of every 150 seconds. Perhaps if they had digital customers this might work, whilst no one has yet explained how everyday incidents such as train breakdowns; signalling faults; point failures; poor rail conditions; trespass incidents; bridge-strikes; lack of crew; ‘congestion in the London area’; inclement weather; passengers delaying services for a myriad of reasons, and so on, can ever be overcome to make this work. With railway operation it only takes one spanner in the works …..

We think it is faced with the sheer impossible when it says: ‘In order to support a route-wide metro-style operation, every service running on the network is required to be dependable and punctual’ – does anyone seriously believe that will happen?

Consequently they intend overloading the Brighton main line with even more services, but this will only increase the strain. This still leaves the Sussex Coast with no secondary route to alleviate the increasingly burdensome load between coast and capital, whilst we’ll just have even more trains queued up when things go wrong. Congestion throughout London will steadily worsen, whilst the cost to businesses both small and large is never calculated.

Few realize that BML2 means connecting the Brighton Mainline, (Haywards Heath, Gatwick Croydon etc) to the high-tech commercial heart of the capital – Canary Wharf, Docklands, Stratford and even beyond.

There’s no hope for Kent either, as Network Rail’s predictions are equally dire on the Tonbridge Mainline. It says: ‘passenger numbers up to 2024 can largely be met through extending existing services to their maximum length’. But having warned that five additional peak services will soon be needed, it then makes the understatement: ‘There is little capacity for any additional services into London and when train lengthening options have been exhausted, there are no straightforward solutions.’

How much longer they can ignore reopening the former main line between London and Tunbridge Wells is anyone’s guess.

If this wasn’t bad enough, the government is demanding councils build thousands more homes hereabouts. With no closed lines reopened, or new lines built anywhere in this region outside London, the situation is beyond critical.

The rail industry must cease deluding everyone into thinking they can manage with the existing trainset. Serious investors are keen and willing to get involved and a proper co-operating partnership between government, investors and Network Rail to build BML2 is long overdue.

We need more than government ‘support’ – we need real leadership and a true sense of direction displayed.