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bringing important railway connections together

Fast-track to growth and prosperity, a greener way of life – and far brighter prospects for generations to come.

The most significant breakthrough towards restoring mainline rail services in Sussex, Kent and Surrey has just been unveiled in the strategy set out by Transport for the South East (TfSE).

The Wealden Line Campaign’s chairman, Cllr Duncan Bennett said: “This truly is a game-changer because no longer is the reinstatement of ‘missing links’ down to county councils, but now the focus of an immensely powerful and far-reaching influential regional authority.”

TfSE is the Sub-national Transport Body for the whole of the South East of England and represents the most heavily-populated and critically congested region in the entire UK which is the primary driver of the economy bordering London. TfSE declares it “works across boundaries, thinks long term and advocates bold action in the interest of its communities.” Aware of the phenomenal challenges ahead in terms of sustaining economic growth, social well-being, employment, far better access and not least the environment, TfSE exudes confidence in putting forward a truly gallant and ambitious plan and says:-

“This plan presents a compelling case for action for investors, including government departments – notably the Treasury and Department for Transport (DfT) – as well as private sector investors. It is written for and on the behalf of the South East’s residents, communities, businesses and political representatives.”

It intends creating thousands of new jobs, transforming the region’s economic output, levelling-up deprived areas and meeting the increasingly-demanding  CO2 targets. In transport terms its objective is to have many million fewer car trips and a half-million more train journeys each weekday. Improved and integrated bus, ferry and mass transit journeys also feature prominently.

Significantly its ‘Core Rail Interventions’ comprise virtually all of the Wealden Line Campaign’s long-held goals to regenerate and fully exploit the Uckfield Line’s immense, but currently suppressed, potential. This comprises fully reinstating the former main line between Uckfield and Lewes, for which Network Rail has already completed detailed engineering designs when it made known: “There are no physical obstructions which would preclude the rebuilding of the railway between Lewes and Uckfield.”

Reconstruction of the wholly-protected 7-mile route couldn’t be more straightforward and would prove to be the most worthwhile and rewarding scheme anywhere in the country. This is because, second only to the Brighton Line, it is the most populated corridor between London and the Sussex Coast. Consequently, the expenditure on two new road bridges over the railway at Uckfield would pale into insignificance given the inestimable value and usefulness of the rebuilt main line encompassing Surrey, Kent and Sussex.

The Wealden Line’s connection into Tunbridge Wells (BML2’s Kent Phase) is also a foremost component of TfSE’s Plan for plainly obvious reasons – reinstating the primary mainline between Sussex and Kent whereby all manner of new rail journey opportunities will come about. Designated by TfSE for ‘Modern Operations Reopening’ it will reintroduce heavy rail operation which ceased under British Rail in 1985. This short but very strategic ‘missing link’ in the network, just 5 miles long, will inevitably be electrified, joining up again with the booming Hastings–Charing Cross Line at Tunbridge Wells.

We should point out that reconnecting the principal rail hubs of Tonbridge and Lewes has long been an aspiration within the rail industry, including train operating companies, which publicly acknowledge the poor connections between these counties. Equally, let’s not forget that not so long ago Network Rail declared that reinstating Lewes–Uckfield would be “another building block in the development of the Lewes, Uckfield, Oxted and London corridor” adding that it would then lead to “shorter journey times, redoubling single line sections, connecting into Tunbridge Wells and electrification.”

At the southern end of the Wealden Line, the rebuilt railway will connect into the London–Lewes line near Offham via Network Rail’s selected option – a short length (approx ¾ mile) of new railway because the direct Brighton route (closed in 1969 via Malling and Lewes town centre) has been irrevocably lost. This is perfect for operating directly to Seaford and the Port of Newhaven as well to Eastbourne; however, it means reversing or changing trains at Lewes for Brighton. To answer this conundrum TfSE alludes to a ‘Reconfiguration at Lewes’ but this would be difficult, represent poor value for money and not be a satisfactory long-term solution for the ever-popular city termed ‘London-by-the-sea’.

Nevertheless, TfSE appears to have embraced the overall BML2 concept because it not only proposes additional platforms at Brighton (as per BML2’s Sussex Phase) but goes on to address the fundamental problems afflicting the South: “This package [London–Sussex Coast Rail] addresses key bottlenecks on the Brighton Main Line, enabling faster, more reliable services and increases in decarbonised capacity across rail operations in the region. Additionally, there are aspirations to reinstate the railways between Uckfield–Lewes and, potentially, Tunbridge Wells West–Tunbridge Wells to increase resilience of rail connectivity between the South Coast and London whilst creating a new east–west passenger rail service. These results should give investors confidence in the level of growth that could be realised through investing in the Brighton Main Line corridor.”

The Wealden Line comprises a £500m package to be completed in the timeframe of the next decade; however, we believe the pressure will be on to deliver it as soon as possible because today’s problems are only going to become a lot worse. Encouragingly, TfSE declares “Doing nothing is not an option” so we have absolutely nothing to gain with further prevarication on this major rail project which has endured so many false starts across four decades.

Inexorably, BML2’s Ashcombe tunnel will prove to be very much-needed whereby direct rail access into the City of Brighton & Hove from the Wealden Line can be achieved, for example Uckfield to Brighton in under 20 minutes; and to Falmer within 13 minutes. Quite apart from the manifold attractions of the ever-developing city – opened up to a vast swathe of South East England, Network Rail will gain the best-possible secondary/relief Brighton Line. Encouragingly, in the past few months, colleagues in the rail industry have worked on new engineering proposals to make this aspect even more cost-effective and irresistibly attractive. Aiming to collaborate with rail industry partners, private investors and corporations, the DfT, MPs and councils, TfSE is now in an unassailable position to lead the way in finally securing this long-held ambition.

A public consultation on TfSE’s Draft Strategy is open for comment until 12th September. 

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