The News


bringing important railway connections together


“Effective transport links are vital for our economy to function properly. This means providing significant transport investment to places like the South Coast, where it is essential to have excellent connectivity”  – George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer, 2015

Earlier this spring at the Institution of Civil Engineers, the current Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt, told the All Party Parliamentary Group on Infrastructure “I really want to have HS3, HS4 and HS5.”

Given the continual problems with even delivering HS2, let alone its eye-watering and seemingly out of control costs, this declaration has caused widespread astonishment. As we know, politicians revel in making headline-grabbing statements – no matter how remote from reality such vacuous aspirations might be. However, one remark in his speech with which we wholeheartedly agree was – “We have got to have much better connectivity.”

Unfortunately Mr Hunt walked straight into the same trap as most do by saying “I think it is absolutely essential for our social cohesion, as well as our economic prosperity, that we develop a growth model that isn’t just focused on London and the South East.” Whilst he may have a point about London (although being our busy, densely-populated capital, it will always command the lion’s share) he is grossly misguided by lumping in the much-maligned South East. Nowhere is this more evident than the notoriously fractured network between Sussex, Kent and Surrey which remains shamefully ignored by successive Governments, whatever their political persuasion. He continued by saying “We must have much better connectivity around the whole country” – except the South East, Jeremy?

Despite the empty promises 25 years ago from New Labour and its Strategic Rail Authority, few were surprised that the ‘blue wall’ South East was deliberately snubbed, despite its over-crowded trains and lack of capacity on overloaded routes – as Network Rail said: ‘Sussex railways are the most congested in the UK’

So what have the Conservatives done about this project in all their thirteen years of power? In 2013 Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin (now Lord McLoughlin and currently chairman of Transport for the North) visited Lewes and told the public “I am alive to local interest in re-opening this [Uckfield] line and wider concerns about rail capacity between London and the South Coast and that is why I have commissioned this study.” But nothing happened.

Labour’s Lord Adonis castigated the Tories at the time, saying the Sussex scheme was “stark staring obvious” and insisting “The loss of Brighton’s second main line via Uckfield and the direct London services it provided was a massive error of the 1960s – it needs to be reversed.” McLoughlin’s Transport Minister Simon Burns then ordered Network Rail to “include a review of the contribution that reopening the former Lewes–Uckfield line could make in meeting future capacity needs.” But nothing happened.

In 2014 Transport Minister Stephen Hammond said the Department for Transport, when considering options for the funding period 2019-2024, “will likely identify a range of potential options for investment some of which may include elements of the wide ranging proposals collectively known as Brighton Main Line 2.” But nothing happened.

In 2015 Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne never uttered a truer statement when saying of Sussex “A part of the country so often ignored, or left behind under previous Governments” and told Lewes’s new Conservative MP: “I announced funding earlier this year towards a feasibility study for the reopening of the Lewes–Uckfield line” whilst his Summer Budget proclaimed: “The Government will extend the scope of the Lewes–Uckfield Study to look at improving rail links between London and the South Coast, including upgrades to existing routes, consideration of the Brighton Main Line corridor and re-examination of the Department for Transport’s feasibility study on BML2.” But nothing happened.

Meanwhile, journal Private Eye commented how New Labour had persistently kicked Lewes–Uckfield into the long grass, while remarking how, under the Conservatives, the Department for Transport mandarins keep “pooh-poohing the idea”.

In 2016 new Prime Minister Theresa May had Chris Grayling as Secretary of State for Transport. A decade earlier, when in opposition, he’d written personally to the Wealden Line Campaign saying: “I can understand your interest in the scheme and appreciate the potential benefits of opening up the line to the South Coast through Uckfield.” He argued that the Conservatives had a grip on the problem, their latest document saying: “Too many developments are being planned without adequate provision for local infrastructure. We want to make sure there is adequate protection for potential public transport routes to help ensure that our towns and cities grow in sustainable ways”. But nothing happened.

When Boris Johnson finally got the keys to Downing Street, his Transport Secretary Grant Shapps bragged about reopening some of the 5,000 miles of railways closed during the 1960s –  and ‘especially those destroyed by the Labour Government’ (as was the South’s most contentious closure, Lewes–Uckfield in 1969). But nothing happened.

Then came Transport Minister Chris Heaton-Harris in 2021, chairman of the much-trumpeted ‘RESTORING YOUR RAILWAY’ programme and who, despite thanking Lewes’s Conservative MP Maria Caulfield for her robust application, promptly slammed the door. The indefensible excuse his DfT superiors used was “train travel in the South is not expected to return to pre-pandemic levels.”  That’s no longer true because levels have been rising sharply, whilst off-peak/leisure travel is now even greater. Just stand on Brighton station concourse and watch the thousands pouring off the trains...... So of course – nothing happened.

Now, here we are in 2023, with yet another Transport Minister Huw Merriman (and Sussex MP for Bexhill & Battle) who in 2015 said “Capacity is, indeed, an issue, and it concerns me hugely that as more housing is built in my constituency, the Uckfield line and the coastal line will become even more overcrowded.”  But – as you can guess – nothing will happen.

So, Jeremy, whilst you may like to fantasise about HS3, HS4, HS5, etc, your party and your Government can’t even reopen a paltry SEVEN miles of mothballed and desperately-needed railway in Sussex, which has been entirely safeguarded throughout for that very purpose since the 1970s. Network Rail knows exactly what needs to be done – having delivered an exhaustive and professional Engineering Study with cost-estimates in 2008.

It is not a trifling branch line to nowhere, but a strategic segment of the network; a double-track main line which will reconnect large towns and communities and deliver your “much better connectivity”, your “social cohesion”, your “growth model” and your “economic prosperity” to which you so profess to aspire.

So how about it.......?