The News


bringing important railway connections together


Uckfield railway severed trackbed.

Flashback to forty years ago when the newly-opened Uckfield bypass severed the

safeguarded Lewes–Uckfield railway trackbed.

East Sussex County Council recently invited the Wealden Line Campaign to respond to ‘LTP4’ – their draft Local Transport Plan 2024-2050. We ignored it because nothing will sway them from doing what they intend anyway. Nevertheless, we looked at their ‘LTP4’ and our premonitory misgivings were soon confirmed. Because the draft contained a section entitled ‘Lewes to Uckfield rail link’ we wondered what it might say; in fact, thefollowing statement deliberately leaves no one any doubt about ESCC’s entrenched position on this important issue – viz:

‘Network Rail carried out a study to try and establish a case for the reinstatement of the Lewes to Uckfield rail link. No formal consultation process on the study was carried out. However, comments on the technical aspects of the study were invited until 19 September 2008.

The [ESCC] Central Rail Corridor Board received the final report of the Network Rail study in July. It concluded that: Although it is technically feasible. There is currently no economic case for rebuilding the Lewes to Uckfield rail line

So there we have it – don’t bother submitting any aspirations to re-opening this ludicrous gap in the South East’s rail network. Pertinently, ESCC’s legendary and well-honed obfuscation on this subject remains as hostile as ever. To begin with, it was not a Network Rail study, although it was deliberately dressed-up as such to facilitate the County Council’s ambition of achieving a ‘once-and-for-all’ decision on ensuring trains never again operated between the Sussex Coast and London over this palpably absurd 7-mile ‘missing link’. In truth, Network Rail’s involvement was confined to its admirably professional engineering investigation, comprising track and signalling diagrams.  This embraced various options for either single or double track, plus electrification; their recommended proposal coming in at £143m.

At the outset, Network Rail’s laudable ambition for developing the route famously read: ‘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.’ Despite this intellectual approach – which would have been seized upon by any other progressive local authority – this was anathema to ESCC and, not surprisingly, was struck out from its published 2008 Study. As Chris Curtis, Network Rail’s involved Project Manager told the Wealden Line Campaign at the time “We subcontracted the passenger demand and business case work from Mott MacDonald. The technical part of the report was easy – basically straightforward engineering, but the passenger demand work in particular is a complex piece of work that Network Rail doesn’t have much experience of doing in-house, hence using consultants.”

This Study, most carefully steered by the ESCC hierarchy, was controversial right from the beginning. This was particularly the case among the financial contributors, principally the town councils of Lewes, Uckfield and Crowborough, who shelled out £50,000 between them, twice ESCC’s contribution (which incidentally it later clawed back), yet were denied any voting rights or influential role.

Indeed, Lord Bassam of Brighton was extremely generous in saying East Sussex County Council “has always been ambivalent” about restoring the railway. If only it was thus and hesitancy or harmless indecision was as far as it went. The Wealden Line Campaign’s supporters know the score only too well. ESCC was directly responsible for severing the line in the first place in the 1960s with its Lewes Relief Road scheme; however, even to this day it has never had the decency to own up to its culpability. This was evinced when Uckfield Town Council objected to ESCC’s blatantly untruthful statement: ‘The eight mile railway line linking Lewes and Uckfield was closed in 1969 due to a damaged viaduct, caused by flooding. This closure was meant to be temporary, but repair of the viaduct was not instigated at that time and the line fell into disrepair.’  Not everyone swallowed this calculated mistruth, whilst even Lewes MP Norman Baker was moved to post a short video on YouTube in accurately laying the blame squarely at County Hall.

Inasmuch as the Wealden Line Campaign has been persistent across almost 40 years, no one can accuse ESCC of not being consistent in its numerous responses to the campaign’s objectives:

‘Costs of reinstatement have escalated and various developments have made such reinstatement difficult – if not impossible.’ – ESCC County Planning Officer August 1986

‘The option to reinstate the railway line between Lewes and Uckfield is no longer feasible and I have, therefore, to advise you that the County Council cannot assist you to achieve your aims.’ – Brian Kermode, ESCC County Highways Engineer, November 1986

‘It is judged to be unrealistic to maintain the option of reopening the line. It is therefore inappropriate to hold out any hope for the Wealden Line Campaign’s objectives being attained and indeed, it must be recognised that the objectives are in conflict with the County Council’s current stance.’ – Joint statement from County Planning and County Highways Engineer.

‘In strategic terms the priority of the County Council is to achieve the improvement of both road and rail South Coast routes to link with the Channel Tunnel. The County Council does not want expenditure to be diverted from these priorities to the Lewes–Uckfield line.’ – ESCC June 1988

While the knives were out for Lewes–Uckfield, even the remaining operational railway came under attack at that time from ESCC’s planners: ‘At present the line from Uckfield northwards to Oxted functions principally as a commuter service to Greater London. This is not a function of Crowborough or Uckfield that the County Council wishes to see expanded.’

Next in line was protection of the trackbed, which ESCC attempted to rescind in 1989, twenty years after they had successfully engineered the disastrous closure when its County Structure Plan concluded:

‘Disbenefits are seen as competition for existing bus services, possible frustration of development at Uckfield, disturbance to people and countryside, high capital cost, and the diversion of funds which would be better spent on other transport proposals.’

Alongside concerns about the trackbed policy frustrating redevelopment, ESCC planners declared: ‘It is significant to note that the number of passengers likely to be carried by trains on a reopened Lewes–Uckfield line is equivalent to the capacity of one bus.’

In its latest proposal ‘LTP4’ ESCC now intends dualling the Uckfield bypass, which has caused local uproar. Funding will come from hundreds of new houses steadily swallowing up the town’s once-green pastures. Dualling will achieve absolutely nothing and present another obstacle to re-opening the railway which is proposed by Transport for the South East. Such funding should instead be directed to building the A22 bypass bridge over the Lewes–Uckfield route which ESCC Highways Committee pledged to do after performing its ‘bait-and-switch’ tactic which incensed councillors fighting for the railway’s interests:

‘The Committee agree to pay the cost of a new bridge and other works over the Uckfield By-pass should the Lewes/Uckfield Railway Line ever be re-opened.’ – ESCC County Highways Engineer’s Report, 12th December 1978.

The Railway Industry Association (RIA) is now predicting that passenger volumes will outstrip capacity in the next 25 years. Consultancy Steer warns: ‘Under any scenario GB rail demand will grow well beyond the capacity provided for today, growth that government policy, rail services and operators will need to accommodate.’

In similar vein, RIA Chief Executive Darren Caplan said: ‘If a future government adopts a bold and ambitious strategy to improve the customer offer and drive some behavioural change, passenger numbers could double by 2050, dramatically increasing revenues. There is clearly a huge opportunity to expand rail travel, benefiting the UK’s economy and its connectivity, as well as bringing social and decarbonisation benefits. To achieve this, we need to see rail reform and a long-term rail strategy as soon as possible, including a plan for increased north-south capacity, which all rail experts agree will not be delivered under current plans.’

As Network Rail said only a few years ago ‘Sussex railways are the most congested in the UK’– and we know this situation will steadily worsen. Collectively the DfT, ESCC and the Government should abandon their last-century transport thinking and enter the real world.