|Peers challenge the Government over BML2|
In the House of Lords on 6 October, Lord Berkeley asked HM Government “whether they will safeguard Uckfield station and the rail track of the former Uckfield to Lewes route for possible future use to provide additional capacity to the main Brighton to London line”. Replying, the Government’s Chief Whip, Earl Attlee, said there were “no current plans to issue safeguarding directions” because the route was “safeguarded by both Wealden and Lewes district councils in their local plans”.
Lord Berkeley then asked if he was “aware that East Sussex County Council has plans to build a road across the formation” and whether he was also aware that the former British Rail Property Board, which is being abolished, is trying to sell off all its surplus land, including the former Uckfield station? Because this land is “essential to the reopening of the line”, Lord Berkeley further enquired “Will he [the Minister] instruct the property board not to do that and to keep this and other similar pieces of land for future reopening?”
Responding, Earl Attlee suggested one of the “benefits” of ESCC’s proposed scheme “is that it allows for the building of a bridge at a later stage” but omitted saying this substantial cost would be borne by Network Rail. He then claimed “the scheme makes it easier to open the line, should that be necessary, because to the west* of the proposed road crossing is a level crossing which would be unacceptable if you wanted to open the railway”. *[in fact it’s east - Ed]
Earl Attlee said the Government would not direct the BR Property Board to safeguard the station site “It is not necessary. We are absolutely confident that nothing has been done that will compromise the ability to open the railway at some point in the future, should it be desirable to do so.”
Lord Bradshaw then interjected: “Surely the land concerned should be vested in Network Rail, which in July last year pronounced the Uckfield to Lewes line of strategic importance”. He cited the enormous difficulties now faced by the ‘East-West’ reopening scheme between Oxford – Cambridge, made “almost impossible” because redevelopment required hugely expensive detours.
Earl Attlee agreed it was important to ensure lines could be reinstated, but said the Secretary of State for Transport could only issue safeguarding directions “only if it is intended to reopen the railway, not to make it possible”. He warned that to do so could “result in compensation to developers”.
Baroness Whitaker was unimpressed and asked: “My Lords, does the Minister accept that his words ‘at some point in the future’ are not very consoling to south-east commuters, of whom I am one, who regularly have to stand on overcrowded trains at certain times of the day?” Earl Attlee admitted she made an “extremely important point” adding that “We all know that at peak periods, the commuter railway lines south of London are all running at peak
capacity”. He mentioned that one difficulty was increasing capacity at London terminals, but in the case of Lewes – Uckfield “one of the bottlenecks is East Croydon, so even if we increased capacity in that area on the south of the line, you would still encounter the bottleneck at East Croydon, and there is very little we can do about that”.
Lord Dholakia referred to the problem of Gatwick Airport being a popular destination, with passengers increasing, whereby he asked “does not the maximum use of the line between Victoria and Brighton demonstrate the need to preserve an alternative method, especially when this expansion of the Brighton Line is exhausted?”
Earl Attlee responded: “My Lords, I fully accept that the Brighton line is running at capacity, but this particular scheme will do nothing to relieve the bottleneck. For instance, the path between Sevenoaks and Orpington is just twin track and there are no more train paths available at the peak period”.
Lord Berkeley expressed gratitude for the answers received, but concluded with his firm belief that recent interest in reopening Lewes – Uckfield showed “a lot of people in Network Rail must think that there is demand there”. Earl Attlee, for the Government, ended on a rather sour note for all those who are subjected to the south’s overcrowded services and the increasingly vulnerable Brighton Line by saying: “My Lords, we do not think that the route will need to be opened within the next 20 years”.
The Wealden Line Campaign thanks those in the House of Lords who are prepared to challenge the coalition Government over this critically important issue. However, BML2 Project Manager Brian Hart said some important points need explaining.
He said: “Be warned – Earl Attlee’s statement means no mothballed trackbed in the UK is now safe under the Conservatives. It hasn’t taken them long to get back to flogging-off important transport assets – as they were accused of doing when they lost power in 1997. But it’s the hypocrisy which I find so inexcusable. Not long before they took power last year, the Conservatives specifically identified Lewes – Uckfield as one of four national reopening projects and proclaimed a moratorium on strategic trackbed sales as part of their ‘Green Transport Strategy’. The Conservatives were also demanding to know from Labour ‘which 13 properties British Rail Property Board have disposed of which contain disused railway lines?’ – the person who tabled that question was the current Transport Minister for Rail Projects Theresa Villiers”.
“Only in 2007 she tabled a question: ‘To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what work her department is undertaking on the possibility of reopening the Lewes to Uckfield railway link’ – so she is well aware of its significance. She also wrote warmly to me, just two years before gaining office, saying Lewes – Uckfield was ‘an issue of high importance’ – her words exactly. So, knowing how even busier the railways have become, why are the Conservatives now unwilling to pursue their ‘Green Transport Strategy’, let alone assist Network Rail in protecting its strategic interests?”
“Worryingly, Earl Attlee is confused over where this road is going, whilst his suggestion that building another road on the level makes it easier to reopen is incredible. It merely loads the cost onto the railway and worsens the business case, otherwise why is Network Rail so worried and arguing that any new road must include a bridge over the trackbed?”
The Campaign’s chairman, Duncan Bennett was equally forthright:
“Lord Bradshaw is absolutely right that the ownership of Uckfield’s station site should be immediately transferred to Network Rail – that is what many of us have been arguing for some time. The land is desperately needed for commuter parking in the short term and not long ago Southern produced plans for up to 200 temporary spaces. Redoubling, electrifying and extending the Uckfield line to Lewes means this site is critical for a large station containing two 12-car platforms – as Network Rails’ plans of 2008 clearly showed. It is not only a nonsense that this site is being sold for about £3m, but an act of corporate recklessness which has far-reaching implications for the economic future of the south.”
“One has to question the motivation behind current official thinking with regards to this particular piece of land. The story of the battle for its use for much-needed commuter parking – an issue I have personally pursued for ten years – would read like a fantastic tragi-comic soap opera script. This is effectively public land, the future development of which, to my mind, must unquestionably include consideration of the greater public good and not just a lucrative commission sale by the BR property board and its private land agents. Aside from its immediate use for parking, the land is critical for the future transport needs of Uckfield and the region. There is simply no other route providing alternative rail access between London and Brighton, whilst simultaneously offering huge capacity relief to the users of the other overcrowded passenger lines within the Kent and Sussex area.
The development of this land should not be prejudicial to the current and future needs of the railway and there is, in fact, an enormous opportunity, through the use of imaginative design, to utilise the site not only for essential transport use, but also combined retail and commercial use. This is the thinking behind today’s modern transport hubs.”
“Should this site be lost – all barring the so-called protected trackbed – and reopening proceeds, where would we put the necessary 12-car platforms and station for this expanding location? Where would we put the extra car parking, which is already woefully lacking? In short, in the myopic and self-serving clamour for a paltry profit, we would witness the utter destruction of all prospects for a transport infrastructure that is increasingly being seen as essential for our future”.
The Campaign believes BR’s Property Board should never have become embroiled in negotiations to sell the site to the prospective developer – who should be told it is no longer for sale. It is clearly against the national public interest. The developer’s retail store, or doctors’ surgery, or sheltered housing, or whatever the latest plan comprises, can be built anywhere else in the town, but the railway simply cannot be diverted from its original course through Uckfield. If compensation is warranted, which we doubt, then let it be paid.
Brian Hart added: “Network Rail needs to fight its corner and defend its industry interests. If necessary, lobby the Government and buy the land from the property board – it’s loose change and there will be no second chance. I also believe Theresa Villiers has a moral and civic duty to assist in persuading Phillip Hammond, Secretary of State for Transport, to agree.”
The excuse not to invest in reopening the southern end of the route due to a lack of London terminal capacity no longer applies. The Campaign has been advised by former senior management who worked on creating Thameslink during the 1980s that the developing Thameslink Programme will make BML2 more than viable with better deployment of existing pathways. The number of train passing through London, rather than terminating, will increase dramatically and many of these services could use BML2’s additional direct routes into both Brighton and Tunbridge Wells – radically transforming travel, opening up new destinations and solving rail congestion in the south.
It follows that Earl Attlee’s briefing that “the path between Sevenoaks and Orpington is just twin track” and full up in peak periods is equally ill-informed. In fact, the problem is even more acute on the Tonbridge Main Line (TML) because it extends beyond Sevenoaks to Tonbridge. BML2 has the solution with reopening the former main line route into Tunbridge Wells from the Uckfield line, providing those much-needed paths and capacity into London and relieving the TML .
BML2 is also the only means of solving the East Croydon bottleneck. No one disputes the size of the problem or that the DfT and transport planners have a huge problem on their hands, but it is not insurmountable. BML2 is a realistic and affordable solution which extracts the maximum possible use out of existing resources and infrastructure. BML2’s ‘Direct London Link’ is an under-used rail corridor between South Croydon and Lewisham. Trains could avoid the East Croydon bottleneck in exactly the same way as many Brighton Line services bypass Redhill and be within just two miles of Canary Wharf and the City of London. Whether there is a tunnel or surface line for a couple of miles to meet Crossrail, or whether we look towards an eventual bigger scheme, such as a future Thameslink to Stratford, is really not for us to speculate. The fact is that this immensely valuable corridor needs to do much more than be partly occupied by a tramway or an extension of the Bakerloo line to Hayes – everything can be accommodated – it is not beyond competent civil engineering.
We simply have to make the utmost of our potential assets. The time has come to bring in professional companies to study BML2 with us and examine the massive potential it offers in freeing us from our otherwise inexorable course to worsening congestion, gridlock and economic stagnation. The future is bright and promising – but only if we grasp what BML2 offers.