Phoenix 2r720

The BML has been closed south of Three Bridges for 9 consecutive days and with more to come. Calls for a viable alternative continue unabated – but the need is far more profound than is generally appreciated.


Fifty years ago, on 23rd February 1969, British Rail closed a 9-mile section of its second main line between London and Brighton to enable a new road to be built across it. This seemingly innocuous decision was an action BR came to bitterly regret, whilst all subsequent attempts to reopen the route in the ensuing decades have failed. For Sussex, Kent and Surrey it has proven to be a disaster, whilst the economic, social and environmental consequences are still being suffered today.

It wasn’t meant to be like this as, only a decade earlier, plans to modernise and electrify this important route were announced in the spring of 1957 at a Special Press Conference in Brighton by the General Manager of British Railways Southern Region. The Sussex Express reported ‘New Electrification Schemes to Benefit Sussex Areas: After the completion of their first priority – the Kent Coast electrification scheme – due in 1961, British Railways intend to electrify the Oxted Line to give a regular service of through trains between London, Tunbridge Wells West, East Grinstead and Brighton via Uckfield.’

At a meeting of local councils in September 1958 BR’s Traffic Superintendent announced work on modernisation had already started, whilst electrification would commence in 1962. He spoke of the sharp increase in passenger traffic since the introduction of new interval train services offering greater frequency.

So why was this major electrification scheme halted and why were profitable routes with such a bright future closed?

Unfortunately in 1959 Ernest Marples was appointed Transport Minister, a politician who fervently favoured roads and eventually became notorious for his pecuniary interest in building them. The timing could not have been worse because Marples was sympathetic to the ‘Lewes Inner Relief Road’ and approved an incredibly controversial plan promoted by East Sussex County Council to build a dual carriageway through Lewes town centre. This £350,000 scheme was allotted a Government grant of 75% making it irresistible to ESCC. However, Lewes Town Council, the Friends of Lewes and the townsfolk mounted a tremendous fight against the proposal and its devastating swathe through the historic County Town of East Sussex.

Tragically the Uckfield line stood directly in the path of the road’s first phase; however, British Railways had no plans to close the line as it was scheduled for electrification and development. The County Council opposed bridging the line, apparently on grounds of ‘design and amenity’ so British Rail sought a compromise, securing an Act of Parliament during 1965 to re-open an alternative route into Lewes along the original Hamsey spur. This would enable that portion of railway line in conflict with the new road scheme to be closed.

The downside was that southbound trains entering Lewes from London and from Tonbridge would face towards Eastbourne instead of Brighton as before, but at least this would retain the very important London – South Coast link.

Train services would recommence by the summer of 1967 over the new Hamsey link which would cost £95,000 to reconstruct; however, BR’s application for funding to the recently-elected Labour Government was refused.

With its primary function at risk, BR saw no future for a line terminating in the middle of East Sussex at Uckfield and retaliated by applying to close all the lines being made ready for electrification; including stations at Barcombe Mills, Isfield, Uckfield, Buxted, Crowborough, Eridge, Ashurst, Cowden, Hever, Edenbridge Town, Groombridge, and Tunbridge Wells West. Protests were widespread with residents from towns and villages converging on Tunbridge Wells to demonstrate.

The battle to save the route involved not only MPs, but also the House of Lords who warned of the utter folly because of the Brighton Line’s notorious vulnerability. Relying on just one very heavily-loaded line between London and Brighton would be ill-advised. Transport Minister Barbara Castle would not be swayed, despite evidence that the trains were well-used between Uckfield and Brighton and ironically it was the busiest section.

Pressure was exerted, whereby in an effort to deter patronage, BR withdrew most through services, necessitating a change of trains at Lewes. To make matters even worse British Rail went on to declare that the iron viaduct carrying the line into Lewes had suddenly become ‘unsafe’ and would require ‘major expenditure’. They insisted it could only be used by a 2-car shuttle train operating between Lewes and Barcombe Mills – the next station towards Uckfield – where passengers then had to change trains towards London. Locals pointed out that the viaduct was perfectly fine for Her Majesty’s Royal Train only a few months earlier.

Richard Marsh, who succeeded Barbara Castle in 1968, made a prompt decision in consenting to the closure of the Lewes–Uckfield section, whereupon Sussex’s ‘withered arm’ would have to rely on a public subsidy. The last trains ran on 23rd February 1969, enabling the victorious road-builders’ bulldozers to finally break through and complete the first phase of the new Relief Road. To cap it all, the hugely contentious stages 2 and 3, involving a deep cutting and dual carriageway through Lewes town were abandoned that autumn. Sussex, Kent and Surrey lost a strategic rail connection and continue to reap the consequences to this day. For its part, Lewes gained a very large flyover across the River Ouse and a road to nowhere.

The outcome has not been limited to just the lack of train services between Lewes and Uckfield as some have imagined over the last half century. On that same day in 1969, all main line services between Tunbridge Wells West and London Victoria were withdrawn, leaving only a local shuttle connection between Eridge and Tonbridge. This too was subsequently removed in 1985, whilst the Uckfield line declined further during the 1980s and was eventually partially-singled.

Richard Marsh left government when Wilson was defeated in 1971 and became the Chairman of the British Railways Board where he stayed until 1976 when he was knighted, becoming Baron Marsh in 1981 after joining the Conservatives in 1978. Asked in 2003 whether he had any regrets over his decision, he responded: “Unfortunately I held the post of Minister of Transport for only a few months between 1968 and 69, by far the shortest period of any post I have held since I started work 61 years ago! I would be surprised if the Uckfield-Lewis [sic] closure had not taken place earlier but after 33 years I am afraid I really have no reliable recollection of the events of those few months.”

The myth that this was merely a Beeching closure because it didn’t pay endures to this day, but nothing could be further from the truth, whilst the events of half a century ago were not confined to a corner of seemingly rural Sussex.

It remains one of the most contentious closures anywhere in the UK because railways, by their very nature, connect us together and engender prosperity, business and well-being for the communities many miles apart. This single action resulted in the loss of two main line routes – between London and Brighton/Lewes and between London and Tunbridge Wells (West). Both routes are desperately needed and unquestionably this need can only increase in the years ahead.

To coincide with this occasion we have produced a new publication in pdf format – ‘How Sussex will benefit with BML2’. This forward-looking document explains in more detail the enormous benefits to be gained and why politicians and a growing number of investment corporations appreciate the merits and exciting possibilities offered by BML2.