End of the Line, No More?


A significant and most welcome development has taken place with the government forging further ahead with clear determination to restore strategic parts of the UK’s rail network.

Sponsored by Lewes MP Maria Caulfield, the required formal application to re-establish critically-important short sections of railway joining Sussex, Kent and Surrey has been wholly successful and as a result will now proceed to the next stage in the process.

Congratulations are due to the Lewes MP who has done a truly first-rate job in uniting fellow MPs in support of the scheme. Accordingly, we express our profound thanks on behalf of all the Wealden Line Campaign members to each and every one of them: Sally-Ann Hart (Hastings & Rye); Caroline Lucas (Brighton Pavilion); Mims Davies (Mid Sussex); Tom Tugendhat (Tonbridge & Malling); Lloyd Russell-Moyle (Brighton Kemptown); and Huw Merriman (Bexhill & Battle). In addition, we thank those listed in March’s BML2 Submission to the Department for Transport who support the proposal. These comprise Zoe Nicholson, Leader of Lewes District Council (Green); Nancy Platts, Leader of Brighton & Hove City Council (Labour); and Steve Bell, Conservative Group Leader B&HCC.

We would like to say that despite their strong political differences across many other spheres, we applaud them for uniting to work for the good of their constituents and especially the generations to come who will benefit tremendously as this great regional scheme at last begins to move forward with gathering speed. In his letter to the MPs and the BML2 Project Consultancy, the Minister of State for Transport Chris Heaton-Harris encouragingly announced – “The scheme has generated a high level of interest”.

Overall, the ‘Restoring Your Railway’ programme prompted a staggering sixty applications from all across the country. Our scheme falls into the DfT’s second category ‘Accelerating Existing Proposals’ (AEP) and we are immensely gratified that its significance has been fully recognised in order to proceed to this important next stage. The Minister went on to say that all applications have now been evaluated by the ‘Ideas Fund Panel’ which he chaired. Among the august representatives on the panel were Simon Clarke, Minister for Regional Growth and Local Government; Sir Peter Hendy, Chairman of Network Rail, Jackie Sadek, CEO UK Regeneration, and Isobel Dedring, former Deputy Mayor for Transport and who, in 2016, was appointed Global Transport Leader at Arup. Between them they scrutinized all the applications in order to select those which significantly offer the greatest benefit and potential.

The Sussex and Kent Phases comprise our AEP application and, as previously reported, BML2’s London phase is in abeyance for the time being due to its magnitude, final design and substantial cost, for which the private sector has expressed serious interest.

Because our submission chiefly comprises reinstating short sections of solidly-protected closed rail links (together with a new fast section linking into the City of Brighton & Hove) there are quick gains. All of it is straightforward, uncomplicated basic engineering, as chiefly demonstrated by Network Rail’s engineering study in 2008. It is also affordable at around £800m and well within the parameters of the £48bn fund the government has proposed to invest towards a carbon-neutral future.

Its Benefit Cost Ratio (BCR) is also very high due to BML2 linking Croydon with Tunbridge Wells and expansive Sussex Coast towns. The BCR is an assessment which DfT guidance uses to determine whether a project is worthy of investment. Twelve years ago in 2008, the consultants commissioned to investigate reopening just one section – solely between Lewes and Uckfield and nothing more – deduced a poor business case, primarily because the bigger picture was not considered. Across the UK, the Uckfield line case is wholly unique because it was never a ‘Beeching closure’ as most people misguidedly assume; in fact, the usage south of Uckfield was always heaviest as loading figures of that era clearly show.

However, in a distinct step-change from previous rulings, the journal RailStaff described BCR as a ‘crude indicator’ and pointed out past failures by saying ‘some of these studies did not fully take account of wider economic benefits’. And BML2 differs strongly from the 2008 Lewes–Uckfield Study because it embraces an extensive part of London and South East. RailStaff also goes on to highlight a distinct shift in the new government’s approach: ‘BCR does not necessarily reflect government policy, which supports the reopening of old lines if they connect communities to centres of employment and commerce or create new corridors for economic growth to rebalance the economy.’ This echoes the DfT’s own guidelines published in February: ‘Please note the government assessment framework does not rely only on benefit cost ratios (BCRs), and strong strategic cases (e.g. regeneration) with low BCRs can progress’. Well, that’s more like it – at last we have more erudite thinking in transport planning. This concurs with our belief over many years that the Uckfield, or Wealden, line has the indisputable capacity to connect today’s large and expanding towns to major conurbations and key regional centres.

Six months ago Maria Caulfield told us that assuming we were successful in our bid, then the DfT would do everything to assist us in developing the project. This has proved to be true. The department wishes to now expound it in order to understand the best route forward. Elaborating, the Transport Minister says: “We are ready to work with you on how best to take this project to the next stage and invite you to discuss the next steps with officials.”

In a further dramatic development in recent days Network Rail has announced its proposal to relocate East Croydon station some hundred metres towards London in order to provide more platforms and more capacity. This is extremely welcome news because the operational conflicts and route limitations at this notorious bottleneck were used some 20-odd years ago as a reason for not being able to return the Uckfield branch to its main line status between the capital and the Sussex Coast.

There is now a genuine political impetus behind BML2 and other strategic links across the country which will markedly improve connectivity. Two lost main lines will be brought back into operation, along with truly useful regional connections for Sussex, Kent and Surrey. New services, new destinations and new opportunities for growth and prosperity with a better, greener way of getting from A to B is now at the top of the government’s transport agenda.