The News


bringing important railway connections together

Grove Link720The once-busy railway connecting East Sussex with Kent in Tunbridge Wells will remain rigorously safeguarded for reopening.
Closed and removed in 1985, it is now designated for main line operations by Transport for the South East as part of their Strategic Investment Plan.

With Transport for the South East (TfSE) having submitted its ‘Strategic Investment Plan’ to the Department for Transport for approval in July, there is a growing clamour for urgent action over its rail aspects. Within the plan is a colossal and controversial package of new road projects running into billions of pounds, whilst the infinitely more valuable and appropriate rail schemes pale by comparison.  This is an unsustainable position – as unsustainable as believing we can simply carry on building more and more roads – and just as delusional as the 1950-60s when governments thought everyone owning cars was the solution.

Now that TfSE has come out strongly in favour of reinstating the network connecting Sussex, Kent and Surrey for ‘mainline operations’ with commensurate electrification between Lewes–Tunbridge Wells/Oxted (for new Brighton–London services via Uckfield) this urgently needs a ‘Project Speed’ to quote Network Rail. But don’t bet on either Network Rail or train companies taking the initiative because they will say it’s not within their remit. Unfortunately approval and timescales rest with civil servants in the DfT, who have the Treasury supremos breathing down their necks. Then add in a good helping of interference from the quangos such as the Rail Safety Standards Board, the Rail Delivery Group and the Office of Rail Regulation and you’ll appreciate why this scheme remains ‘DELAYED’ and stuck in the mire and the collective failure to get anything done.

As we recently showed, the torpor and ministerial ineptness associated with reinstating a short segment in a Sussex main line is something which astounds many observers, not just in the UK, but overseas too. However, attitudes are increasingly hardening on a local level at this perpetual political indifference, where noticeable cracks are appearing in the so-called ‘blue wall’ south of the capital. In the past month, both District and Borough councils have once again reiterated their strong support for reinstating the Wealden Line as proposed by TfSE. They have also provided solid assurances that its interests remain wholly protected – as shall its safeguarded trackbed from end to end. This includes Uckfield–Lewes, as well as Eridge–Tunbridge Wells (Central) to be precise; routes which are currently absent from the national rail network, yet are of tremendous strategic importance.

The Uckfield Railway Line Parishes Committee, keen to reduce the need for car-usage, boost the ailing local economy and regenerate the region’s fractured railway, sought clarification.

Wealden Green Party District Councillor Martyn Everitt, gave solid assurance that no development would be allowed which could prejudice the line’s ultimate restoration.

Similarly, Lewes District Council’s new Leader, Green Party Cllr Zoe Nicolson, reaffirmed the route’s unwavering protection, whilst Labour Cllr Laurence O’Connor, LDC’s Head of Planning and Infrastructure, said: “From my perspective the retention of this railway trackbed is clearly important as it ensures the future possibility of the reinstatement of the route for all the reasons you have stated.”

Equally encouraging, the Leader of Tunbridge Wells Borough Council, Liberal Democrat Cllr Ben Chapelard, warmly responded: “Rest assured our policy at TWBC won’t change under the Borough Partnership administration. One of our Focus on Five priorities is Carbon Reduction. We are 100% committed to doing all we can to encourage active and more sustainable transport.” He also went on to say: “As a train buff I would love to see the line re-opened” – and hit the nail on the head by adding –“Just needs leadership nationally!” – Well said Ben!

Of course, Local Government support is all very well and we shall always be eternally grateful to all these councils and their individual stalwarts who, throughout almost forty years of the Wealden Line Campaign, have been alongside us all the way. Nevertheless, the project needs the ‘big guns’ to start pushing this through because further deliberation and procrastination is fundamentally harming the region, its populace and especially its fragile and sensitive environment. So among its MPs, who will speak out? Lewes MP Maria Caulfield has been a lone voice in the past couple of years and single-handedly submitted Sussex’s bid to the ‘Restoring Your Railway’ Fund.  Many feel she was badly let down by The Rt Hon Greg Clark, MP for Tunbridge Wells after he told Maria he did not want any of his previous quotes of support for reopening the railway (as part of BML2) being repeated. So here they are:

“I would be delighted to see BML2 go ahead as the reopening of Tunbridge Wells West would be a real boon to the town – bringing greater choice and more services both to London and other parts of Kent and Sussex. I’m therefore thrilled to see that work continues at pace. Reopening lines closed in the 1960s and 70s is also an important part of the Government’s new Rail Strategy, and the Secretary of State for Transport has warmly welcomed the BML2 consortium’s endeavours.” – (‘Missing Link’ Spring 2014)

Also in that year, prior to the 2015 General Election, Greg Clark’s office told the Wealden Line Campaign that he was “a strong supporter of the BML2 campaign” and in March 2014 wrote: “He has recently written to the Rail Minister, Stephen Hammond, to highlight the benefits that a link from Tunbridge Wells to BML2 would bring to his constituents” whilst a press release of his read: “The transport network in my constituency is already severely overcrowded so a new link from Tunbridge Wells to Brighton, Eastbourne and London would be a great boon.”

Such laudable ‘big gun’ support was truly appreciated by the Conservative Leader of Brighton & Hove City Council, Cllr Geoffrey Theobald, who enthused: “Greg Clark’s support for a second Brighton main line is extremely welcome and significant. Reliable transport links between Brighton and London are therefore vital if that economic growth is to be sustained and if we want to attract more outside investment. I’m sure that Greg Clark, as the Cities Minister, recognises this and hopefully he can put pressure on the Department for Transport and the Treasury to deliver this much-needed improvement to the region’s infrastructure.”

Seeking an honest answer, earlier this summer we wrote to Mr Clark at his Parliamentary office, but were disappointed that he displayed neither courage nor courtesy in deeming a reply. Meanwhile, rumours abound that his neighbours in the leafy Madeira Park area of Tunbridge Wells, through which passenger trains operated between 1876–1985 and where the protected trackbed connecting the Sussex and Kent network runs, are apparently aghast at the prospect of the public once again passing through by train – hence his about-face.

Perhaps none of this really matters in the final analysis, because we only delude ourselves if we imagine that ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ politicians (to use BBC Robin Day’s famous quote) will make any difference. What does matter is that we collectively address the very real and important issues over how we effectively enable people to move around for work, education, leisure, etc; how we ensure our communities and businesses thrive; and how we care for this uniquely special and fragile environment stretching across the South East.