Brighton opinion: Restoration of the Uckfield to Lewes train line

Brighton opinion Restoration of the Uckfield to Lewes train lineIn this article, Brighton and Hove Free Press contributor James Stilgoe takes a look at the campaign for the re-opening of the Uckfield to Lewes train line, the implications it has for Brighton and other commuters in the surrounding area, plus the obstacles the campaign has faced.

In 1969 the Lewes to Uckfield railway link was temporarily closed as work was carried out on a damaged viaduct. Despite many false dawns, half-hearted enquiries and work by ‘The Wealden Line Campaign’, the line remains closed 40 years later.

A 2008 report into the issue concluded that, although the restoration of the line was technically possible, ‘in the area between and around Lewes to Uckfield, there is not a case for reopening the line on either a straightforward monetary or a socio-economic basis.’

Supporters of restoring the ‘Wealden Line’ may have been discouraged but in May 2010 a flicker rose from the campaign’s embers as Norman Baker, MP for Lewes and long-time supporter of the Wealden Line Campaign, was appointed as the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Transport.

Still, a year passed without any developments until 23 September 2011 when a leaky tunnel lining closed the Brighton to London Mainline for a day, highlighting the fragility of the rail infrastructure in the south.

The closure of Balcombe tunnel meant passengers and commuters faced an 80-mile rail diversion via Littlehampton, or a replacement bus service between Haywards Heath and Three Bridges, adding a further 45 minutes to rush hour journeys.

At the time, Mr Baker said that the case for re-opening the Lewes – Uckfield train line had been “reinforced” and suggested an investigation would be launched by the Office of Rail Regulation: no investigation has been announced.

The Wealden Line Campaign was started in 1986 and since the 2008 report its founders have created the new BML2 (Brighton Mainline 2) campaign.

Founder Brian Hart recognises “a lack of capacity is the big problem in the south but the BML2 would push the route straight into Brighton – carrying an extra six to 12 trains an hour.” This would relieve the congested train services and ensure there was no repeat of the Balcombe tunnel incident.

Mr Hart has also drawn his own conclusions from the 2008 report. He said “We were deflated but not surprised. A lot of good stuff was stripped from the report so that Network Rail only looked at the Lewes and Uckfield use.”

The source of Mr Hart’s argument stems from a section of the report which was omitted after the third revision. The report was due to be released in May 2008 but was delayed on three occasions to allow adjustments to be made.

At a meeting of the Uckfield Railway Parish Committee in July 2008, campaigners quoted Network Rail’s original draft Executive Summary as including the paragraph: “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, re-doubling any single line sections, connecting into Tunbridge Wells and electrification.”

This would have extended the scope of the report to include socio-economic factors from the Crowborough, Oxted, Tunbridge Wells and London areas which may have benefited from better transport links to Brighton.

When asked about Mr Baker’s efforts, Mr Hart said “A lot of people feel let down, it’s the same with all these politicians they say one thing but then when they get into power it’s a different matter. He could do a lot more than he has done.”

Mr Baker has responded by saying: “It is against the Ministerial Code to advantage one’s constituency. We do need to look at the whole corridor through to Clapham Junction and East Croydon. There are a lot of capacity constraints but the coalition government is now overseeing the largest investment into the railways since Victorian times. ”

In January this year, Norman Baker clarified his position when he told the Wealden Line Campaign “The case for reinstatement of Lewes–Uckfield may well rest on the creation of an alternative line from the South Coast to London.

“I continue to believe that the re-opening of the Lewes–Uckfield line makes good railway sense and I have not entirely given up my aspiration to be present for the day this finally happens.”

One factor which was not present in the 2008 report is the consideration of winter weather. Recent years has seen heavy snow fall in the area with Brighton recording 32cm and the South Downs recording 60cm on 2 December 2010 alone.

This left commuters, who rely on the struggling bus service, stranded either in Brighton or unable to go into work altogether.

Mike Best, Operations Director of Brighton & Hove Bus and Coach Company, acknowledged: “Over the last couple of years we have found it impossible to get north of Lewes when the snow was really bad.”

On 17 December 2010, the 29a/29/28 bus route service shut down completely in the early evening. Commuters from the Lewes, Uckfield, Crowborough and Tunbridge Wells were cut off from Brighton, yet the train service to Lewes was still able to run a revised table.

Even with trains running, people still had to drive to Lewes in treacherous conditions to rescue those stranded at their own risk.

Mike Best added: “Brighton and Hove Buses cannot be responsible for people who make journeys regardless, when we are unable to run buses.”

The safety of commuters in winter and business costs of employees missing work due to adverse weather is another factor which was not taken into consideration by the 2008 report.

Despite growing calls for reinstating the line from Brighton Kemptown Conservative MP Simon Kirby, Brian Hart remains unconvinced of the campaign’s chances.

He said: “Decisions are made by people in power, you could have a million people jumping but it’s up to Network Rail and Department for Transport to consider whether to increase capacity in the south.”

This may be a number which includes Norman Baker as, when Transport Minister Theresa Villiers met with Simon Kirby, she said: “Our priorities for Network Rail’s Control Period 5 (2014 to 2019) are mainly focused on the provision of additional capacity on the existing network.

“We will continue to consider the re-opening of former railways where they are able to make an immediate contribution to the capacity shortfall – as East-West will do for Oxford and for Milton Keynes.

“Sadly the reopening of the railway between Lewes and Uckfield cannot do this and it cannot therefore be a priority for Government investment for the moment.”

POSTED BY JAMES STILGOE

Photo: Uckfield Train Station

Posted by on Apr 30th, 2012 and filed under News, Politics, Traffic and Travel. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response by filling following comment form or trackback to this entry from your site

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