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bringing important railway connections together

Atocha Tunnel

Our European neighbours are forging ahead with eco-friendly rail investment to build a greener, cleaner future with economic growth. Photo: Railway Gazette International

The recent commitment by Transport for the South East (TfSE) to deliver ‘Direct passenger rail services from London to Brighton via Tunbridge Wells and Uckfield’ has produced renewed interest from consultants.

Conscious of the many vexing operational difficulties and hindrances associated with the South East’s rail network and ardently supportive of BML2, they believe the case for constructing Ashcombe tunnel through the South Downs has become even stronger and more urgent. After studying TfSE’s ‘Rail Thematic Plan’, attention was drawn to the ambiguous phrase ‘Reconfiguration at Lewes’ which exposes the absence of a realistic solution capable of answering an historic problem. Whilst new direct main line train services between London and Lewes to Eastbourne or Seaford/Newhaven remain a steadfast objective of the Wealden Line Campaign, it remains imperative the City of Brighton & Hove is properly connected.

Reversing Brighton trains at Lewes would add considerable time to the journeys, especially as Lewes station is notoriously hindered by speed restrictions and sharp curves. The considerable extra mileage added to such a journey also makes it very unattractive. Additionally, these Brighton trains would be incompatible with the County Town’s other important services, whilst the same goes for obliging people to change platforms there. With that in mind, the question is therefore – how do you provide the fastest-possible and most attractive direct services between London and Brighton via Tunbridge Wells?

Ashcombe tunnel, running beneath the South Downs between Offham and Kingston, is the only answer because of the profound advantages it would bestow in terms of transport and the environment. As well as giving the ever-popular seaside city the essential fastest-possible alternative route to London, the University of Sussex, as well as Brighton & Hove Albion’s stadium at Falmer, obtain a direct link to the capital. Equally important, the vibrant city becomes easily accessible by rail from a vast swathe of the populous South East.

In 2016 Chancellor George Osborne’s ‘London & South Coast Rail Study’, consultancy WSP concluded Ashcombe tunnel would indeed provide the optimum journey time, second only to the overcrowded and congested Brighton mainline. But this is where the Department for Transport intervened, insisting that tunnels, such as Kent’s £70m North Downs tunnel on HS1 (built as single-bore with double-track) could no longer be permitted ‘on safety grounds’ due to evacuating people should there be an emergency – no matter that thousands of trains continue operating daily through countless Victorian railway tunnels! The DfT cited the European Union’s TSI Directive of 2011 which reads: ‘Technical Specifications for Interoperability which defines the technical and operational standards which must be met by each subsystem, or part of subsystem, in order to meet the essential requirements and ensure the interoperability of the railway system of the European Union.’

The TSI requires all new tunnels over 1km be twin bores which immediately doubles the cost – as witnessed by HS2. Even though BML2’s Ashcombe tunnel won’t be for high-speed operation (over 140 mph!) we were told it would still have to comply. Only a few years ago our politicians promised that if we left the EU then we could ‘plough our own furrow’ and be “free of the shackles of Brussels’ regulation!” Yet here we are, still obstructed by rules to which even EU states disregard – yes, that’s true!

Our advisors have drawn our attention to a brand-new high-speed line in Spain. Here the Atocha – Chamartin tunnel was built for a double-track, standard-gauge railway with a single-bore. At a length of 7.3km (4½ miles) it was opened to great acclaim only last July and notably with Spain’s State Railway Safety Agency (AESF) as well as its Ministry of Transport giving it their full approval.  Well, all due credit to the Spanish – but how did they get away with this? So why can’t the “liberated” UK do what EU member-state Spain has done?

This Spanish tunnel cost €338m (£300m) and just happens to be three times the length of the proposed UK tunnel at  Ashcombe (2.4km / 1½ miles) so a perfectly reasonable estimate is that the new tunnel through the South Downs to directly link Brighton and London via Tunbridge Wells would cost £100m. That’s a relatively paltry amount in transport budget terms and a prudent investment. Let’s not forget the whole of TfSE’s 27-year spending package amounts to over £45 billion – the overwhelming majority not surprisingly designated for its colossal road-building programme. Furthermore, the cost of Ashcombe rail tunnel would be just 5% of the cost of TfSE’s proposed A27 Worthing Road Tunnel (£2 billion). So which do you think offers the best value-for-money and be better for the environment?

Our consultants have also impressed upon us that unlike road schemes, Ashcombe tunnel and rail projects can be financed through the farebox over time and therefore provide a payback on the initial investment. They have also pointed out that it’s not just the Spanish who are well ahead of the UK, but the French, too. State-owned SNCF is cultivating Green Bonds among investment corporations, recently reporting:

‘Our bonds have proven popular with investors, raising the funds we need to upgrade our rail infrastructure. We allocated the proceeds of SNCF Green Bonds to core network upgrade and modernization projects. Eco-friendly rail and mass transit solutions play a vital role in the transition to a greener, sustainable economy, and are an integral part of reducing carbon footprints. We’ve been at the heart of French life for over 80 years—but we never stand still. As a champion of rail and sustainable mobility, we’re playing a pivotal role in the transition to a cleaner, greener future.’

It’s a travesty “Build Back Better” Brexit Britain is being left SO far behind..................