The News


bringing important railway connections together

Southern DC Systems

Sixty years ago the busy South East rail network was gearing-up to welcome the next stage of British Railway’s major electrification projects, immediately following on from the immensely-successful Kent Coast scheme delivered in June 1961. The Oxted Lines Electrification Plan was promised to be completed by 1964 –‘to give a regular service of through trains between London, South Croydon, Oxted, Tunbridge Wells, East Grinstead and Brighton via Uckfield.’

Passenger growth in the area was certainly encouraging with Uckfield and Crowborough experiencing substantial housing and population expansion as people relocated and commuted into London. BR’s Traffic Superintendent announced a 186% increase in season tickets, whilst significant operating economies would be made with modern signalling and new electric traction replacing steam trains. BR’s Southern Region was finally delivering the 1930’s Oxted Line electrification scheme of the former Southern Railway, stalled by the outbreak of WWII. So why didn’t it happen?

The answer is politics because the Government controlled the purse strings of the nationalised railway and therefore investment, making the industry subject to political whim and interference. Under Transport Minister Ernest Marples, large grants of 75% were being made available to local authorities for road schemes, whereby East Sussex County Council successfully built a 400 metre (¼ mile) section of new road in the County Town of Lewes that severed the Uckfield line in 1969.

Losing this main line between London and the Sussex Coast was nothing short of catastrophic, not just for Sussex, but Kent and Surrey also, whilst its impact continues to this day. Saddled with a long branch line terminating at Uckfield with just a 7-mile gap from the busy coastal network, it’s hardly surprising that BR’s £11m scheme failed in 1974 to electrify what remained – South Croydon to Uckfield, East Grinstead and to Tunbridge Wells West. Afterwards, Thatcher’s Government sanctioned the destruction of the once-busy main rail link between Sussex and Kent through Tunbridge Wells in 1985. Whilst East Grinstead came under ‘London outer-suburban’ and was fortunate in being electrified in 1987, the deteriorating and speed-restricted Uckfield line was eventually singled in 1991 to save on maintenance. What a legacy!

Between them, BR and the Department for Transport trotted-out all the stock answers to bat away pleas for investment. No case to reopen Lewes to Uckfield because it would feed into a non-electrified line. No case to electrify because the line stops at Uckfield. No case to reopen to Lewes because trains could no longer run directly into Brighton. Finally, in January 2000, Connex UK Ltd recognised the problem and their regrettably unsuccessful bid for a 20-year franchise pledged to do what Transport for the South East (TfSE) has now committed itself to doing – reopen the Uckfield (Wealden) line’s ‘missing links’ to Lewes and Tunbridge Wells and electrify throughout!

So another 23 years have been wasted, during which time clear-headed decisions and firm leadership have been replaced by more dithering and obstructive interference. This has been compounded by astonishing announcements such as‘Third rail is dead’ when Peter Dearman, Network Rail’s Head of Electrification, declared in 2011 that the whole of the Southern’s third rail network should be converted to overhead AC electrification. Almost as incredulous was Chris Gibb’s 2016 report, published by the Department for Transport, which recommended the Uckfield branch be electrified with the overhead system, despite its incongruity with the rest of the network. Worst of all was Gibb’s short-sighted proposal to place the electrical substations on the adjacent trackbed where the line had been singled. Of course, no mention was made of reconnecting the railway to its previous profitable revenue-earning markets.

If this wasn’t sufficiently dismal we also have the Office of Rail and Road – which is a ‘non-ministerial government department responsible for the economic and safety regulation of Britain’s railways’ – and for good measure the RSSB. This is the Rail Safety and Standards Board, created in 2003 under Labour, but unlike another Labour quango, the worthless Strategic Rail Authority, it’s still interfering in running our railways.  The RSSB says: ‘We are an independent rail industry body that supports our members and stakeholders in delivering a safer, more efficient and sustainable rail system.’ A few years ago the ORR effectively stuck its oar in by announcing a ban on any extensions to the third rail network on safety grounds, but as pointed out recently in RAIL magazine: “When RSSB ran the incident rate for Network Rail’s Sussex route, it found that adding third rail to the Uckfield branch would give 3.4 incidents every 15 years or approximately one fatality every 14 years. You can disagree, but that doesn’t sound dangerous enough to justify ORR’s effective ban on more third rail.” So let’s now put that into context – during 2022 Sussex and Kent between them recorded 115 road deaths.

TfSE rightly says: ‘It would not be practical or cost-effective to use the overhead system for infilling most of the gaps in the third rail electrified network within the South East.’  Meanwhile, as we learn from TfSE: ‘The RSSB has been conducting research into alternative technical solutions for infilling gaps in the legacy third rail electrified network. The outcome of that work is currently awaited.’  We’ll not hold our breath.....

The Southern’s electrified system runs very efficiently and safely for many hundreds of miles, carrying countless thousands of people every day. The Uckfield branch, along with its two mothballed links, amounts to 37 miles of railway to be ‘juiced’ and these short sections would immediately reconnect large, busy and growing conurbations – as TfSE itself says: ‘The London to Sussex Coast Area suffers from a lack of east – west connectivity with the transport links that do exist offering slow and unreliable journeys. TfSE and its partners propose a vision which addresses these issues, increasing social and economic interaction between neighbouring towns.’  In an area blessed but bearing the responsibility of so many Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty – the protected High Weald; the South Downs National Park; the Seven Sisters Country Park, as well as the Green Belt in Surrey – we cannot carve these up with new roads – which would solve nothing anyway.

Today, sixty years on, life, trade and transport would be strikingly better across this vast swathe of the South East had British Railways succeeded in electrifying the Lewes – Tunbridge Wells and Oxted lines in 1964. This represents the true cost of the infamous Lewes road scheme, not its £572,879 price tag.