Possibly the daftest of all rail closures was Uckfield to Lewes in 1969. Even when railways were in decline this closure made no sense at all. It turned a through route into a dead end branch. I suspect the idea was that once this section was closed the rest of the line would follow. Of course since then the world has changed completely, railways are in the ascendent and are desperate for more capacity.
The whole trackbed is safeguarded, so the intention to reopen is clear. Once open the line will offer loads of new opportunities including a diversionary route from Brighton to London and easy access for Uckfield and Crowborough residents to get to the south coast. Whole new commuting opportunities will also arise.
Here's the latest developments in parliament on this essential route.
|Villiers reaffirms interest in Lewes–Uckfield to Baker|
In a letter about the threat of another East Sussex County Council road scheme slicing across the safeguarded Lewes–Uckfield trackbed, Rail Minister Theresa Villiers appears eager to reassure her departmental colleague and Coalition partner Norman Baker.
She told him “Given the importance of the points raised by Robert Chubb [sic] in his letter, and my personal interest in this issue, there were various matters on which I asked for further briefing from officials.” She also made the point “I am very much aware of your long-standing support for re-opening the Lewes–Uckfield line” and said he was “correct that both parties in the Coalition have expressed support for protecting track beds where possible”.
She referred to the route being “safeguarded by both Wealden and Lewes District Councils” as part of the changeover towards “Local Development Frameworks”. This shifts responsibility away from County Councils following the abolition of County Structure Plans.
Mrs Villiers said she had spoken to the DfT’s Head of Property, Malcolm Twite who “assures me that the plans have been specifically designed to ensure that they would not prevent the Lewes–Uckfield line from re-opening in the future”. She had also been advised that “the proposal to move the road could actually make it easier to put together a case for re-opening the railway. This is because a re-opening would, in all likelihood, require a bridge to be constructed.” She continued “Although there was a level crossing when the line was formerly in use, you will appreciate that the current policy of Network Rail and ORR is not to introduce new level crossings. I am advised that it would be easier and more cost effective to build a bridge over the railway using the new alignment for the road rather than the current one.”
However, BML2 project manager Brian Hart said “Firstly, we are advised that the County Council, as the Local Transport Authority with wide-sweeping powers, will be able to override any so-called ‘safeguarding’ by the less-powerful district councils, so I fear this is a hollow guarantee. Secondly, no one has ever suggested the old level crossing should be reopened because it’s quite obvious a bridge will be necessary. The problem is that the County Council intends slicing the critically-important station site completely in two with this new ground level road. This will worsen the business case for reopening because the road will have to be elevated over the station and railway, or moved elsewhere to allow trains to pass through. This is simply loading costs onto Network Rail.
Mrs Villiers also mentioned the impact a redevelopment of the site would have on the trackbed. She told Norman that the BRBR (the Rail Property Board) would “retain ownership of the freehold” – although this refers only to a narrow linear strip which would be used as car parking associated with the new buildings. “A term would be
included in the contract giving BRBR the right to terminate the lease in the event that the land is required to re-open the railway. This option has been deliberately selected in order to ensure that the land could be taken back promptly if re-opening became a viable proposition”.
An unimpressed Brian Hart said “It’s unclear who will retain ownership as the BRBR is supposed to be on David Cameron’s ‘Bonfire of Quangos’ so how can a body being abolished take back the land? More importantly, though, I’m afraid the minister is not being given the whole picture and the valid concerns of Network Rail and many others need to be taken into account. Any reopening of this line – whether just as Lewes–Uckfield as Norman Baker wants – or as part of BML2, will necessitate the relocation of Uckfield station to its original site. The town’s station cannot go anywhere else. The cramped terminus opposite is on an embankment constrained by the river with just one reversible line from London, whilst the single platform straddles the former Down Main Line which was dismantled in 1990 to accommodate it.”
The plans Network Rail supplied for the ill-fated County Council-led 2008 Lewes–Uckfield Re-opening Study, show two 12-car platforms either side of a double-track railway will need to be constructed on the original site. This is right where Rupert Clubb, ESCC’s Director of Economy, Transport and Environment, intends building his road to manage additional in-town traffic demand from housing development in Uckfield which hasn’t yet occurred. Brian Hart added, “It looks to be a pre-emptive strike in a final effort to stop the line ever reopening and settle the matter ‘once and for all’ to use the aspiration once uttered by ESCC’s appointed chairman overseeing the 2008 re-opening study.”
Campaign chairman and Uckfield Deputy Mayor, Duncan Bennett said: “Given the astounding turnaround of the Uckfield line in recent years, the unimaginable rise in rail demand generally, as well as the looming capacity crisis facing the south’s main lines into London, it would be sheer folly to throw away this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Norman Baker is plainly right to say we need more capacity between the Sussex Coast and London and, as he says, investment in the Uckfield line is the only way we are ever going to achieve it”.
He went on to say “On a more local level, I am keen to see Network Rail get involved and take possession of Uckfield’s station site so it can be developed into a major transport hub. It may well be that at some point a new road may be required, but it must be properly-designed to accommodate the all-important railway. We must also take into account residents’ fears about serious flood risk posed by having another road bridge built at grade across the river. Uckfield is a booming and expanding town with a fantastic future and I am determined we get the best. The town desperately needs parking for commuters, as well as renewed rail links with the surrounding towns such as Lewes, Brighton and Eastbourne. I want to see imaginative and truly creative thinking deployed. This would be a good opportunity for Network Rail to demonstrate the flair it has shown with successful commercial station redevelopments in London and elsewhere. We can all be winners on this.”
Theresa Villiers concluded by saying to Norman “If I can be of any further assistance in this matter, please do not hesitate to contact me. I remain happy to discuss it at any time”. With the door open, we hope Norman will take up this invitation since he has been an immensely admirable, outstanding and long-standing campaigner on this subject.
“It was a tragedy that this line was ever shut. It survived Beeching only to be closed by the County Council. I have, with many others, been fighting for reinstatement for more than 15 years. The logic is unquestionable and the issue won’t go away. It is one of my ambitions in my political life to be at the reopening of the line and I intend to achieve it.” – Norman Baker 2004
“The case for reopening this line is overwhelming and any sane national transport policy would have achieved it by now.” – Norman Baker 2005
“I am becoming increasingly frustrated with the negativity of the Department for Transport, which refuses to recognise that there are now more rail passengers travelling each year than ever before, on a network about the half the size it was post-war, and react accordingly. Clearly we need more capacity on the network, and that must include reopening stations and sections of line that in most cases should never have been shut. Lewes-Uckfield is clearly one of those.” – Norman Baker 2008