The News


bringing important railway connections together


Once a busy double-track main line connecting Kent and Sussex with direct services to/from London via Croydon; Brighton via Uckfield;
Three Bridges via East Grinstead; Eastbourne via Heathfield –and programmed for electrification in 1964.
What a criminal waste of a once magnificent and desperately-needed transport asset.

The South East’s major scheme to revive its badly-fractured network with direct trains between London and Brighton via Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells has now been delivered for endorsement by the Department for Transport.

Transport for the South East (TfSE) has just announced: ‘Following approval [in March] TfSE submitted the Strategic Investment Plan to Government and have since received a letter confirming that Department for Transport will give the plan due consideration when making future investment and policy decisions.’ Wasting no time, TfSE is now forging ahead with its Delivery Action Plan – which it intends completing by the end of July, setting out its strategy ‘to make this plan a reality’.

Meanwhile, the online news media Kent Live headlined ‘Network Rail's damning verdict on fast train from Tunbridge Wells to Brighton’. However, the sensationalist title doesn’t match the true position in returning the primary rail link between Sussex and Kent to the national network.

Having contacted Network Rail about TfSE’s Strategic Investment Plan, which includes restoring/electrifying both Lewes–Uckfield and Eridge–Tunbridge Wells links for ‘Main Line Operations’, Kent & Sussex Courier journalist Mary Harris reported her findings. In fact, all that was said by this ‘spokesperson’ was as follows: “We’ve worked closely with Transport for the South East on the development of their Strategic Investment Plan. At this stage there is no funding or business case in place for the reopening of the line between Uckfield and Lewes but that’s not to say that it won’t be considered as a long-term proposal. We continue to work closely with Transport for the South East on the development of their proposals.”

It’s very encouraging that Network Rail – which is purely an engineering company contracted to look after the railways and nothing more – is liaising with TfSE on technical issues. But Network Rail has no say in what projects get the go-ahead, nor has it any jurisdiction over allotting funding to schemes. These decisions are made by civil servants at the Department for Transport in association with their Treasury boffins. So it’s rather like asking the blokes resurfacing the road when they’re going to extend the M23.

An official Network Rail source explained to the Wealden Line Campaign their position as far as they dare go with regard to the Uckfield Line and also verified their non-existent role in determining where investment is directed: “In terms of upgrading the line/electrifying it etc, we are keen to see it happen, but the decision and funding is not within our gift. It’s not funded and the ORR [Office of Rail Regulation] hasn’t approved it.”

Nevertheless, Mary Harris was certainly spot-on in highlighting the truly dismal prospect of getting around in this oh-so busy part of the South East. To her great credit, she revealed that despite Tunbridge Wells and Brighton being 33 miles apart, currently going by train would be gruelling. Either route, via Hastings or Redhill, would involve two changes, with the exhausting journeys ranging from 1 hour 44 minutes to 2 hours 19 minutes.

‘Railway journeys between the west Kent area (Sevenoaks/Tonbridge/Tunbridge Wells) and the relatively close Sussex Coast (Brighton/Lewes/Eastbourne) are poor, requiring a detour via Hastings.’ – Network Rail Kent Route Study.

There is also a limited-stop bus, but although timetabled to take two hours (an average of 17mph!) the poor old buses often take longer because they get stuck in all the traffic jams. So how about driving? Well, fuel aside, Mary points out that will cost you about £24 to park for four hours in Brighton – and you’re entering a city determined to discourage car-usage.

Even today, few appreciate the once-thriving Uckfield line was not a Beeching casualty, but destroyed in domino effect by the notoriously half-baked Lewes Relief Road scheme of the 1960s assisted by the infamous Transport Minister Ernest Marples.

Our railways are already nationalised because it is the Department for Transport which instructs ministers what to do and say, writing their letters, Parliamentary responses, formulating policy and making all the decisions. Transient Transport Secretaries and Ministers have no special railway knowledge and change like a Solari board – or much like a London bus – there’ll be another one along in a minute. Therefore, no matter how many ‘partnership consultations’ take place, or whatever ‘stakeholder engagements’ are held, it’s not Network Rail or train operators, but the DfT who rule over any expansion and development of the railway. Indeed, in its day, British Rail had infinitely more freedom to make decisions on investment.

Mary Harris also mentions the “massively popular Spa Valley Railway” (SpVR) which operates steam and diesel trains at weekends with themed events. In such close proximity and vying with the nearby Bluebell Railway and Kent & East Sussex Railway to attract visitors, many question the need and ultimately their sustainability in an area they claim is awash with heritage lines. Maybe, but the overriding problem with the SpVR is that it occupies an undeniably key section of what should be the properly-functioning national network.

She claims the SpVR is “the biggest tourism draw in Tunbridge Wells” – but let’s not forget it comes at a phenomenally high cost to the whole region and particularly Tonbridge, Sevenoaks and many other heavily-populated Kentish towns which would profit immeasurably with fast, direct services to Brighton and the ever-popular Sussex Coast. So too will towns such as Lewes and those fast-expanding like Uckfield and Crowborough which once benefited from direct train services to Tunbridge Wells, Tonbridge and beyond. All the while, massive housing estates are piling-in everywhere across greenfield sites, yet these short sections remain lost to our national rail network.

Having a wide regional responsibility, TfSE knows exactly how vital an inter-connected rail system is for the South East, not just for tourism and leisure, but commuting and getting to work, school, education, social occasions and so on.

Rail plays a vital part in the South East’s economy and that’s why this scheme is being pursued – and will happen.