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bringing important railway connections together

Electrification plans scrapped, strategic regional connections axed and partially reduced to single track – all catastrophic political mistakes from the bad old days. This former main line is now a leading candidate for the Government’s ‘Green Transport Revolution’.


The Government’s stringent measures have temporarily put normal life on hold, whilst halting the spread of this zoonotic virus quite rightly remains its utmost priority. Protecting people’s health is clearly essential, but so is the nation’s economy and containing the financial hit to avoid a hugely-damaging, long-term recession.

Understandable concerns have been raised that investment will now be curtailed as a result of this pandemic and that the new political pledges to ‘Restoring Your Railway’ will be broken. We have been asked whether really useful and easily affordable projects such as BML2 might yet again be shelved, so these fears need to be allayed. But at this precise time the Government and the Department for Transport have more than enough in dealing with the current crisis, complicated by many staff obliged to work from home.

As we last reported, the BML2 Project was forging ahead, thanks largely to its Authorized Parliamentary Sponsor, Lewes MP Maria Caulfield who immediately contacted the Secretary of State for Transport the moment the Government’s ‘Reversing Beeching’ initiative was launched. Our initial submission in the form of a ‘pitch book’ was speedily completed whereby the pdf presentation was warmly received by Grant Shapps at an in-depth briefing with Maria on 4th February. He was keen for it to go ahead, whereby BML2 Consultancy Ltd was then invited by the DfT to submit its formal bid to proceed to the next stage; the deadline being Monday 16th March.

With the pressure on, a great deal of work took place in early March as we had to satisfy a number of prerequisites; most notably, backing from MPs, local authority endorsement and public support. We also had to fulfil numerous preliminary criteria expected by the DfT with regard to all proposals. Examples are whether the project is actually feasible; the definable extent of route protection since closure; the degree of anticipated engineering challenges; any potential environmental harm; the scheme’s quantifiable demand; measurable benefits for local businesses and tourism; interfacing with other services; improvements towards social connectivity and, particularly emphasised, improving access to schools, colleges and universities.

Accordingly, during the second week of March, drafts of the required submission were exchanged between BML2 Consultancy and Maria Caulfield’s Parliamentary office. We cannot praise them too highly for the swift action they deployed in not only shaping the final document, but also cultivating the requisite regional political support among local MPs and council officials. The deadline was successfully attained, whereupon we were preparing the DfT’s next stage (which would have been a presentation followed by a question and answer session during the last week of March) – such was the determination of the new Government to get spades in the ground as soon as possible. Needless to say, this scheduled raft of presentations from the successful bidders did not happen because within a matter of days, the coronavirus pandemic forced a lockdown. The original agenda would have allowed the DfT a consideration period across two months with an announcement during June of the successful projects eligible for funding, whereupon planning and initial work programmes would commence this year. However, global crises around the swift spread of the coronavirus have engulfed us and obviously we are limited in what we can achieve in the interim.

Nevertheless, in the last few weeks we have re-opened communications with AECOM, a major international infrastructure engineering and environment company, with whom we first entered into discussions about BML2 in 2017 and with keen local interest in the proposal. This will follow on from their ongoing experience driving the development of benchmark re-opening schemes elsewhere in England, notably the Northumberland Line where initial work is being undertaken as one of the first schemes through the Restoring Your Railways Fund. We shall continue discussions with AECOM and look forward to drawing on their pioneering experience.

This is good news because it means we can continue making further headway whereby we can return at some point to the most welcome agenda to which Boris Johnson’s Government has aspired. Planning and design will continue to complement the immensely useful outline work already carried out during 2019 by other associates involved at various locations in Kent and Sussex. This puts BML2 in a remarkably strong position. We are also at a tremendous advantage in having very detailed engineering and specification work carried out during 2007-8 by Network Rail which has proved invaluable. Our technological era means that communication channels remain open; ideas continue to be exchanged through email; plans and designs are electronically transferable; so physical contact is not necessary even if the lockdown restrictions continue for a long period.

If this wasn’t enough, there has been an additional development which we consider to be of perhaps even greater significance. In tandem with the ‘Restoring Your Railway’ commitment, in January the DfT announced a truly massive programme to switch to carbon neutral technology. This compels the UK to immediately start cutting CO2 emissions to zero within 30 years. However, in regard to the railways, the Government is committing us to an even more ambitious target of decarbonising UK rail by 2040. In announcing its ‘Green Transport Revolution’ Grant Shapps asserted: “We are perfectly placed to seize the economic opportunities that being in the vanguard of this change presents. The faster we act, the greater the benefits.”

Accordingly, rail industry bodies, as well as civil and electrical engineers, have unanimously called for the Transport Secretary to waste no time whatsoever in instigating a rolling programme of electrification towards eliminating diesel traction from the railways. ‘Decarbonising Transport - Setting the Challenge’ has astounded and encouraged environmentalist organizations with both its vision and determination. In its foreword, Grant Shapps declares “Public transport and active travel will be the natural first choice for our daily activities. We will use our cars less and be able to rely on a convenient, cost-effective and coherent public transport network.” Stephen Joseph, visiting professor at Hertfordshire University, (and former head of the Campaign for Better Transport) described the ground-breaking shift in policy as “utterly gob-smacking” and reckoned the Secretary of State’s words “really do seem to signify a radical change.”

We could not be more delighted that the DfT now recognizes what the Wealden Line Campaign has been saying for over thirty years: “Rail is a relatively low-carbon form of transport, and is one of the most efficient ways of moving high volumes of people into city centres and moving people over long distances.”

Following Parliament’s passing of the Climate Change Act in June 2019, the Committee for Climate Change (CCC) compiled its report, detailing precisely the electrification schemes required for a net-zero carbon railway. CCC puts the Uckfield line in the highest category – marked ‘Definite’ – because it is unsuitable for either battery or bi-mode traction. So with railway electrification now the priority we can guarantee the ‘in-fill’ completion of this part of the Southern’s 750vDC third rail network – long overdue by about 60 years (Oxted Line Electrification Programme 1958–64).

But whilst electrifying the current Uckfield branch is now certain to happen, the strategic case spanning environmental, social and economic terms is overwhelmingly stronger as BML2 with its inter-regional links joining Sussex, Kent and Surrey. BML2 is completely in line with the DfT’s comprehensive and hugely-welcome policy shift – which cannot come too soon. Politically, all the signals are now set at green to accomplish the completion of an electrified main line railway from Oxted to Lewes; into Tunbridge Wells via Ashurst and Eridge; and swiftly into Brighton via the new Ashcombe tunnel. The benefits to the region will be massive and represent immense value for money in public investment terms.

It is no exaggeration to assert that we have reached a point in history where now there is no going back on all the past aspirations, promises, good intentions and so on. That is because when this pandemic is over, we shall still be confronted by the stark challenges around climate change, greenhouse gas emissions, unhealthy pollution, protecting earth’s species and habitats, etc. Earth’s pollution levels have drastically plummeted during the coronavirus lockdown and respected journalists have commented that we will not be allowed to slip back to old ways. Moving people around in far more environmentally responsible manner will remain paramount and we shall move forward with the technology which can be our salvation.

In regard to rail, we now have the opportunity to put right some of the catastrophic and short-sighted political mistakes of the 1960s whereby here in Sussex and Kent our persistent struggle for over half a century will finally draw to a close. 2020 will be infamous for its devastating global virus, but let’s make it the turning point for a new beginning, for a better world where we also have far greater respect for our fellow living creatures. We need to ensure we can all look forward to that bright future.