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bringing important railway connections together


Sussex – ignored and left behind�

Sussex – ignored and left behind – yet again! Kilbride engineers walk the 7-mile Lewes–Uckfield line in 2004 and another 20 years are wasted.

Now the dust has settled on scrapping HS2, what precisely comprises the Government’s palliative named ‘Network North’, presumably designed to take the political heat out of the issue? Critics claim it mostly comprises schemes previously announced; perhaps so, but at least billions of pounds are poised to be spent across Northern England and the Midlands.

The Gov.UK website calls ‘Network North’ ‘a new approach to transport in the country’ and – as a consequence of abandoning HS2 –‘every region will now receive investment in the modes of transport that matter to you most.’  Well that sounds encouraging, but the devil is always in the detail. In diminishing order, the billions are allocated thus: Yorks & Humber £18bn; North West £15.4bn; North East £11.4bn; East Midlands £8.6bn; West Midlands £6.6bn; South East £1.3bn; South West £1.2bn.

Elaborating how abandoning HS2 ‘will help to transform your local area’ the document promises‘new stations, further electrification, bus corridors and new integrated public transport networks, new roads, reopening of stations closed under the 1960s Beeching reforms.’  Previously announced or not, there now appears to be the funding – surely better than bulldozing more £s into HS2’s bottomless pit....? Specified projects are: ‘Ivanhoe Line between Leicester and Burton’ – ‘the reopening of the Leamside Line’ – ‘the restoration of the Don Valley Line between Stockbridge and Sheffield’ – ‘re-opening the Stoke to Leek line’as well as the ‘Oswestry to Gobowen Line’.

The South East’s comparatively small £1.3bn is destined entirely for roads with nothing allocated towards easing rail’s interminable situation. Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham might care to heed what was said only a few weeks ago: ‘Network Rail’s Sussex route is among the busiest and most congested in the country, carrying 3,200 trains every weekday. Some of the oldest railway infrastructure can also be found along the Sussex route’. But surely, Transport Minister Richard Holden meant every word at September’s Brighton conference, telling Transport for the South East delegates: ‘We’re committed to ensuring local residents can rely on a world-class transport network”. Or is it just more of the same – as former Chancellor George Osborne so famously said of Sussex: “a part of the country so often ignored or left behind under previous Governments”.....?

Meanwhile, the Government is to reinstate a ‘missing link’ in Southern England – not in Sussex but in Devon – as its website promises: ‘A new station built at Tavistock; connecting it with Plymouth. Plus five miles of track will be reinstated.’ Apparently Network Rail has concerns over the vulnerability of the (GW) mainline along the Dawlish coast. Consequently, part of the former SR mainline to Plymouth, closed in 1968 and which twists through the Tavy Valley is touted as a future alternative. Trouble is, north of Tavistock, there’s 17 miles of derelict trackbed before the railway starts again at Okehampton.

The abject failure to address the South East’s notorious and long-standing absent rail connections couldn’t be clearer on Gov.UK’s frontispiece. This is no oversight because they’ve been perfectly aware of this catastrophe for decades. Its omission amounts to utter contempt for this region. Ratification of TfSE’s Plan rejoining Sussex, Kent and Surrey’s absent rail links should now be given the utmost priority.

Although reinstating 5-miles of railway between Bere Alston and Tavistock is good news, it poses questions. The 2021 population census shows Tavistock is 12,675 and Bere Alston is 2,259 whilst Uckfield is 15,033 and Lewes is 16,070. So why do the Devon towns deserve reconnecting – yet not the Sussex towns? And how often do we hear the Brighton mainline desperately needs a proper alternative?!

Next question, why does Tavistock need to be connected those 16 miles to Plymouth (pop.264,700) but Uckfield – which continues being inundated with hundreds of new homes – doesn’t warrant those 16-miles to Brighton (pop.276,300)? However, most strikingly, whereas the Devon reinstatement will simply come to a dead-end at Tavistock, the long-overdue link from the Sussex Coast to Uckfield would connect directly into an existing main line to London.

Having partially spent £155m ensuring the resilience of the Dawlish line to Plymouth, why isn’t the same concern shown towards the struggling Sussex network – as we’ve just read from Network Rail – ‘among the busiest and most congested in the country’ along with having ‘some of the oldest railway infrastructure’......?

Many will recall how enthusiastic Network Rail was over the Sussex reopening in 2007, excelling in its role in the £150k Reinstatement Study where its comprehensive Draft Engineering Study declared: ‘If this scheme was to be taken forward then it could be seen as another building block in the development of the Lewes, Uckfield, Oxted and London corridor. Later developments could include shorter journey time, redoubling any single-line sections, connecting into Tunbridge Wells and electrification’*. What an eminently sensible plan – matching precisely what Transport for the South East now intends doing!

Coincidentally, it was Kilbride, a company which, back in 2005, saw merit in both Devon and Sussex schemes and even committed £50k of its own resources to the latter given their confidence of success. Tragically, East Sussex County Council (ESCC) seized control of the Reinstatement Study and, having a gyratory road scheme planned for Uckfield’s extensive former station site, made certain the study ‘proved’ an unworthy Business to Cost Ratio, thanks to its compliant consultant hired-in from Mott MacDonald. (*this declaration was obviously deleted from ESCC’s approved Final Draft).

Hardly surprising then, in industry journal Rail Professional, BBC Transport Correspondent Paul Clifton wrote: ‘It was said to have the best case of any scheme to reinstate disused track, yet Network Rail found there was no business case’. In fact, Network Rail had no part whatsoever in the cunningly-manipulated ‘business case’ which Lewes MP Norman Baker – one of the totemic representatives craftily brought in to add gravitas on ESCC’s Reinstatement Study Board – declared afterwards: “It was a case of putting rubbish in and getting rubbish out”. As uncovered later, its deceit was more perfidious than anyone appreciated at the time.

Astonishingly, there followed the ultimate act of treachery in February 2009 when ESCC representatives sought a meeting in the House of Commons. In the presence of the Lewes MP and the Wealden Line Campaign they bewildered the pro-rail All Party Parliamentary Rail Group by telling them: “Society as a whole would be worse off through reopening this line.” Little surprise then that a director of Kilbride interviewed by Local Transport Today about their progress with the Tavistock reopening said: “We’re not spending much time on Lewes–Uckfield at the moment. It is very clear that East Sussex County Council is trying to stop the project.”

Fortunately, ESCC’s hugely-controversial and despised road scheme, for which the heroic Sussex Express mounted its own ‘STOP THE GYRATORY’ petition, was eventually thwarted by the intervention of the House of Lords where Lord Berkeley was instrumental in ensuring the site passed instead into the safe custody of Network Rail.

It’s now almost 55 years since Lewes–Uckfield was destroyed, so is “we’re committed to ensuring local residents can rely on a world-class transport network” mere pre-election hyperbole? Or might Transport Minister Richard Holden, as he said recently, truthfully seek “to understand how the Government can work together with Transport for the South East and local stakeholders to continue boosting transport connections and help better-connect communities to grow the economy.”

Or maybe just carry on growing weeds Minister.........?