The News


bringing important railway connections together

rail reinstatement

At last! A bright and exciting future dawns for this major South East rail project.

A new main line with fast services operating between London and Brighton via Tunbridge Wells and Uckfield is going to be built. Unveiling its ‘Strategic Investment Plan’ the regional authority Transport for the South East (TfSE) has committed itself to delivering this immensely important project which will, as it states:‘Direct passenger rail services from London to Brighton via Tunbridge Wells and Uckfield.’

TfSE reveals it has been working with industry partners towards this vital objective:‘In collaboration with Network Rail and the Local Transport Authorities a package of rail interventions has been developed which will enhance connectivity and reliability between London and the Sussex Coast.’ This is certain to please all those who use rail for travel, as well as all the many towns across Sussex, Kent and Surrey which have, for many decades now, resolutely clung on to this aspiration and have ensured the Wealden Line’s strategic links have been protected from redevelopment.

TfSE rightly identifies the vulnerability of the Brighton Main Line as a primary hindrance to the region’s growth and prosperity and is 100% behind Network Rail’s attempts to improve the Sussex route’s resilience. However, it recognises that no matter how many ‘interventions’ are carried out to improve the route, there is inevitably a ceiling on how much growth it can sustain, as well as a limit to its reliability. TfSE goes on to explain:‘Capacity is limited on the Brighton Main Line and the allocation of this capacity does not meet the needs and/or aspirations of all the area’s stakeholders.’

To address this long-standing problem, the powerful regional authority will now press ahead with creating what Connex UK Ltd proposed in 2000 which was to deliver the ‘Wealden Main Line’ by reinstating not only the Lewes – Uckfield railway, but also the equally important Eridge – Tunbridge Wells (Central) section. Forming the central plank of Connex’s ‘20:20 Vision’ this would have relieved the over-congested Brighton Line with a new 90mph main line for the South East.

As many will know, all the engineering and design work for the Lewes – Uckfield section was thoroughly examined and completed by Network Rail Engineering during 2007/8. It did not go any further following a seriously-flawed and disreputable ‘business case’ which had been contracted out to independent transport consultants.

These two small breaches in the South East’s rail network seriously hinder flexibility, resilience and not least journey opportunities, whilst these Wealden Line re-openings will completely transform rail travel across three counties. As TfSE correctly reasons ‘London to Sussex Coast railway reinstatements will deliver a higher capacity, more resilient and faster passenger rail service on the Brighton Main Line’. This is because the Wealden Line will regain its strategic position and hitherto role of supporting the adjacent Brighton Line. It will no longer be a branch line fizzling out just seven miles short of the busy and popular coastal network.

At the moment, TfSE is looking only at reinstating a non-stop railway south of Uckfield via a new connection into the London – Lewes line, as designed by Network Rail in 2008. This will bring trains into Lewes from the west; that is facing east towards Newhaven/Seaford and Eastbourne. A solution will have to be identified for direct operation into Brighton. With the former direct route to Brighton through Lewes (built in 1868) having been irretrievably destroyed by a County Council road scheme in 1969, it has remained a conundrum, as well as a convenient ‘do-nothing’ excuse by the Department for Transport. This is why BML2 (Brighton Main Line 2) was developed to build ‘Ashcombe tunnel’ through the South Downs for speedy and direct trains into the City of Brighton & Hove, as well as having the direct connection to Lewes/Eastbourne, etc.

At the London end TfSE points out ‘Almost every passenger rail service passes through a single bottleneck at East Croydon. According to Network Rail, the Croydon area is the busiest, most congested and most complex part of the country’s rail network. The lack of capacity at East Croydon station and the complex series of junctions north of Croydon – the Selhurst triangle – delays trains across the Brighton Main Line and the wider network every time an incident occurs. It also means there is no capacity to run more trains to meet future passenger growth, which will lead to overcrowding in the years ahead unless action is taken.’

This is what we have known for decades, which is why BML2’s London Phase – also known as ‘Thameslink 2’ – was thoroughly investigated and planned to deliver a new main line railway between Croydon – Canary Wharf – Stratford/Docklands. Tinkering around with perhaps squeezing in an odd extra track or two through East Croydon will not work which is why BML2, both across London as well as into Brighton and Lewes, will inexorably come to pass. As large-scale housing development keeps piling in all the while across southern counties, the alternative is building yet more roads which figuratively leads nowhere.

There should be no further prevarication about getting started as we’ve nothing to lose, but everything to gain. Because projects nowadays take years to plan, build and deliver, it is imperative to “get on with the job”. TfSE assesses the whole package for ‘London to Sussex Coast Rail’, which includes work on the Brighton Line, reinstating and electrifying the Wealden Line at somewhere between £450m – £550m.

So next question – when? A ‘Development Phase’ is planned to take place in 2026-30 which is Network Rail’s ‘Control Period 7’. The ‘Delivery Phase’ (actual reconstruction) is ‘Control Period 8’ which is scheduled between 2031-35, whilst the ‘Operational Phase’ is estimated between 2036 and 2040.

BML2 aside, the Wealden Line Campaign thoroughly welcomes the stance and determined approach TfSE has taken in committing itself to restoring the Uckfield line’s connections. Nevertheless, we think the programme is far too protracted and has to be speeded-up, along with high-profile political support and all possible co-operation from the Department for Transport and Network Rail.

There are increasingly critical environmental and economic reasons for action to be bold, decisive and swift. This is no time for dawdling – this project is already well-overdue. This really is one for Network Rail’s so-called ‘PROJECT SPEED’!