The News


bringing important railway connections together


Unlike HS2, poorly-planned from the start, good schemes will always attract serious private investors, even if Government Departments aren’t up to the job and let the country down.

Folklore says the dream of HS2 came to Lord Andrew Adonis while taking a bath; an idea seized upon with verve by former PMs David Cameron and especially Boris Johnson for its indulgent testosterone-fuelled “Pwoah” effect. We can be pretty certain that our more circumspect and cool-headed politicians, if they had a time machine, would zip back to that moment and not only pull the plug on his lordship’s bath, but likewise the calamitous nightmare HS2 is becoming.

HS1 – or the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (CTRL) – as it was once properly termed, works because it is a branch of the European network. HS2, if it was ever going to be truly effective, should have gone east of London to Manchester by way of Luton and Leicester so that some high-speed services could have operated directly between the north and the continent without going via the capital. A northern spur out of St Pancras to HS2 for Birmingham and Manchester could have done all that today’s languishing project was supposed to achieve. This would have been far less-destructive, immeasurably more efficient and done wonders for the north by being speedily and seamlessly connected to the rest of Europe.

Fifty years ago British Rail was planning the CTRL – running from Folkestone via Ashford, Tonbridge and Edenbridge, before striking up through Surrey’s leafy shires around Oxted and going to – you’ll never believe it – Old Oak Common! So you’d be forgiven for thinking someone retrieved the wrong plans out of the drawer. CTRL was also contentious back in the day, whereby the sweetener, or dangling carrot, for those immediately adversely affected by a high-speed ‘Chunnel’ link was the simultaneous electrification of the Oxted line (South Croydon–East Grinstead/Tunbridge Wells West–Uckfield). Following the 1974 oil shortages, rampant inflation, economic crises, power-cuts and political upheaval of that era, (sound familiar?) everything was shelved.

Given what is happening with HS2, it’s disconcerting the current Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt pronounced only earlier this year “I really want to have HS3, HS4 and HS5.” Politicians should not be let anywhere near railways; their influence is often toxic and interference is almost always disastrous as history has demonstrated. Here in the South East we have reason to be rueful over their actions which remain testament to their meddling and crass interventions, blighting the once-impressive regional network that would be our transport salvation today and for generations to come. Wouldn’t you agree Mr Marples?

Many wise words have been spoken regarding the latest estimate of £109 billion already spent if a proportion had instead gone towards transforming the fractured, constrained and ineffective northern rail network, especially its lamentable east–west connections. They also recognise that HS1 is effectively part of the Trans–European network and shrewdly observe the British Isles are compact, with towns and cities in close proximity and where inhabitants will only hear these non-stop trains whooshing through while deriving no benefit. It is no comfort to hear indignant northern leaders urging the continuation of bulldozing countless more billions into the HS2 black hole; the services of which, if they ever operate, will certainly not be offering any cheap day returns for the average citizen. Unlike France, Spain, Germany and particularly the USA and China with vast distances to cross, we have no equivalent, whilst our rail travel requirements are entirely different. The UK desperately needs far better connectivity, more capacity (as numbers now recover), along with comfort, affordability and, above all, reliability. Railways were our gift to the world and in the coming years we’re going to need them more than ever.

So what do HS2 and BML2 have in common? Absolutely nothing in terms of what they represent and would deliver. In rejecting BML2 a decade ago the Department for Transport’s Rail Operations Advisor, Peter Foot, wrote:

‘Whether or not a major infrastructure project has a good business case matters not if it is unaffordable. Like all Government budgets, the rail budget is under great strain and can ill-afford to take on new major projects at this time. Ministers have determined that the top priority for rail investment in forthcoming years is the High Speed 2 (HS2) line north from London to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds. It is barely conceivable that Government would venture to promote another major rail project in the near future, especially given the huge challenge there has been to both the value-for-money and environmental cases for HS2. There is no doubt that BML2 would be subjected to similar challenge if the Government were to adopt and promote the idea and it is less easy to see how a business case as strong as the case for HS2 might be constructed to support the BML2 proposition.’

In 2013 when this was written HS2’s revised estimate had just crept up to £42bn.

We’ve endured forty years of ‘do-nothing’ excuses from the DfT and rail bosses – viz:

* No good because trains would face the ‘wrong way’ on a re-opened Uckfield–Lewes line as the direct line through Lewes to Brighton was destroyed in 1969.

* No use re-opening the seven mile link because the Uckfield branch is unelectrified.

* No case to electrify the Wealden line because it now ends at Uckfield.

* Cannot reopen/electrify and run more trains between Sussex Coast and London because of the East Croydon bottleneck.

* Cannot support BML2 because it would bypass East Croydon.

* Cannot operate more trains with Wealden line due to insufficient capacity at London termini.

* No case to reopen via Tunbridge Wells West as Cannon Street and Charing Cross ‘effectively full’ – and Tonbridge main line needs five more unattainable pathways (2017 Kent Route Study).

Meanwhile, we hear ‘Sussex railways are the most congested in the UK’ – Network Rail.

BML2 was specifically designed to answer the South East’s crippling rail problems.

Sussex Phase: A new tunnel through the South Downs directly into Brighton alongside reopening to Lewes and the coastal towns beyond.

Kent Phase: Reopen Ashurst/Eridge–Tunbridge Wells to relieve the Tonbridge main line and transform both regional connectivity and capacity.

London Phase: Popularly called ‘Thameslink 2’ – enabling up to 20 trains per hour to serve main lines radiating throughout Sussex and Kent, Surrey, Essex and parts of London. Create new dedicated Gatwick–Canary Wharf–Stansted airport rail service for expanding Docklands development.

The usefulness, new destinations and travelling opportunities, the relief of central London termini congestion, the added-value to property and commercial ventures across the eastern Thames area immediately attracted foreign investors; principally the China Railway Eryuan Engineering Group (CREEG). As a company founded in 1952, currently employing more than 6,300 staff and with specialisms including rail design and engineering, CREEG made plain at the start that they wouldn’t touch HS2 with the proverbial bargepole, but in 2017 were convinced about the merits of BML2, notably what its London Phase offered.

CREEG was prepared to construct the London Phase at an agreed fixed price and then handover complete ownership of the new line. For them it was to be a ‘showcase project’ in the UK aimed to establish their reputation in Western Markets. The UK would gain vastly by improving north–south transport links east of the capital serving the burgeoning Docklands areas within London.

Despite the specialist Sino-UK team making serious endeavours at the time to engage the Department for Transport, these efforts came to nought and talks ended in utter frustration over the obscuration and indifference shown.

Result: no ‘Showcase’ project for the Chinese and no new rail line for UK passengers.