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Out of steam and going nowhere

Out of steam and going nowhere. With diesel supposedly being phased-out and continuing indecision on electrification – what message are

Boris Johnson’s Transport Minister Wendy Morton and Wealden MP Nusrat Ghani conveying?

Contrary to the announcement published in April’s Modern Railways – ‘Uckfield third rail is NR priority’ – upon which our recent website story was based in all good faith – Network Rail has been in touch to say – “unfortunately it’s not true.”

It appears that the journal was at the recent function at Eridge station in conversation with Southern Region’s MD John Halsall whereupon someone got their wires crossed because Network Rail tells us they are “not going to press ahead with electrifying the Uckfield line and we have no funding to do so.”  Quite apart from not having “the many millions to do the job”, the Government hasn’t approved it. Despite the disappointment this will cause, we were reassured to be told: “we still have an aspiration to electrify the route and our preference would be using the third rail.”

So the spotlight is on what the Government and its non-electable quangos in both the ‘Office of Road and Rail’, as well as the ‘Rail Safety and Standards Board’ propose doing – that’s assuming they have any clues. It appears to us there are four choices:

1: Do nothing and just carry on operating the diesel ‘Turbostar’ trains. (That will mean reneging on the Government’s decarbonisation pledge towards ‘Net-Zero’)

2: Cutting pollution by withdrawing all but the peak-hour services to reduce mileage and thereby emissions. (How well would that go down?)

3. Close the line completely. (After spending £Ms on new access-for-all at Eridge and Crowborough?)

4. Electrify with 3rd rail, compatible with rest of network and its trains. (Clearly the obvious choice – which one hopes the ORR and RSSB might eventually accept)

It’s apparent the 25-mile Hurst Green–Uckfield route will have to be electrified pretty soon, but as we pointed out in our last piece, option 4 must have an appalling business case (although they’ll probably massage the figures). We’ll then be in a situation where the electric trains will start-off in London and speed their way 46 miles, serving a highly-populated area throughout Surrey, Kent and East Sussex, before they can’t get any further.

By reinstating the 7-mile gap (exactly as per Network Rail’s 2008 Engineering Study) they could continue rapidly and well-loaded into Lewes within 10 minutes. A prosperous Wealden Main Line, as it was intended to be sixty years ago and in the environmentally-conscious 21st century is needed even more. These trains could be useful direct services to Eastbourne, Newhaven and Seaford or Hastings, while people can cross the platform at Lewes for Falmer and ever-popular Brighton.

Cue the time-honoured civil service ‘do nothing’ excuse – “The station layout here would constrain through running to Brighton and would involve a shunt movement to gain the Brighton Line.” This is where Brighton Main Line 2 and Ashcombe tunnel comes in, but we still await the political champion with both the intelligence and top-down command to get on with the job and start fixing it for the South. Decades have been wasted dithering and procrastinating over what anyone with an ounce of commonsense can grasp what needs to be done.

With the Government soon to be in full control of the railways as ‘Great British Railways’ we await the innovation, the business-focus and ‘can-do’ culture it is promising us. Or will it in the overcrowded, disconnected South East simply remain ‘Great Broken Railway’.........?