South East’s crowded corridor of uncertainty
A new study into the London to South Coast corridor suggests an upgrade, with 50% more trains providing enough capacity to last until 2050. But it’s likely to mean the end of the dream to reopen the lost Lewes-Uckfield link… at least for a generation. PAU
The line between London and Brighton is already the busiest in the country. Windmill Bridge Junction, south of Croydon, is the busiest junction in the country.
Ask any Southern or Thameslink commuter, and they will tell you that passengers frequently have to stand all the way to work. And demand is forecast to double in the next 40 years. Brighton is a bigger employment centre than Portsmouth, Southampton or Reading - in the South East only London itself and Milton Keynes are larger. It also has ten million tourists a year.
This is currently Britain’s poorest-performing railway - even during the disruptive year-long strikes, half the delays on the Brighton Main Line (BML) have been down to infrastructure faults. The state of this congested, overworked route significantly compromises the ability of the train operator to deliver a reliable service.
In each of the past four years, it has been the bottom of the heap in the National Rail Passenger Survey. And the margin is widening each year.
So the Department for Transport commissioned consultant WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff to study how it could be improved. The work has taken more than a year, and the report considers proposals to reopen the disused link between Lewes and Uckfield, which could provide a secondary route to the capital, along with a wider ‘BML2’ scheme to carry services past Croydon into the City.
But a Network Rail study in 2014 found the arguments for BML2 did not stack up either financially or operationally. So it is no surprise to see the DfT’s latest report reach the same conclusions.
“The key strategic priority for this corridor is to pursue Network Rail’s upgrade proposals to the existing Brighton Main Line,” it concludes. “No other proposals would deliver a similar level of improvements in similar timescales.” The London & South Coast Rail Corridor
Studyy recommends that Network Rail should crack on with addressing the critical Croydon bottleneck during the next five-year funding period (Control Period 6 - CP6, 2019-2024). This, it says, will unlock 50% more peak-hour fast-line train paths into London, and meet demand for at least the next 30 years and perhaps through to the late 2050s, depending
The key strategic priority for this corridor is to pursue Network Rail’s upgrade proposals to the existing Brighton Main Line. No other proposals would deliver a similar level of improvements in similar timescales. London & South Coast Rail Corridor Study
on the scale of housing development in the region.
Therefore, it says: “There is no need to start planning for a new line now, or to pursue the BML2 scheme that incorporates a link between Croydon, Lewisham, Stratford and beyond. New lines do not serve an existing need. Furthermore, investment in reliability and resilience for the corridor should be focused on BML itself, not diversionary routes via Uckfield or Arundel.”
The idea of reopening Lewes-Uckfield is not quite dismissed entirely. There is a “poor transport case”, although a stronger argument could be constructed by harnessing it to a wider economic growth agenda.
The study looks at existing demand. This might come as a surprise to early morning commuters, but when all the new Thameslink rolling stock is in service, there will be enough room for unconstrained growth in passenger numbers from Brighton to Gatwick for at least the next ten to 15 years. And longer ten-car trains on the Uckfield line will cope with growth until at least 2034.
But by 2043, without further investment, passengers would be standing all the way from Preston Park, a station within Brighton. That’s a journey of 1hr 15mins. Closer to London, there would be no room even for standing passengers north of Merstham.
Although Network Rail has yet to offer cost estimates for its work to ease the Croydon bottleneck, remodelling Clapham Junction and work at Victoria, the WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff study reckons NR will need to spend up to £1.5 billion over the next decade.
“We agree with stakeholders that Network Rail’s BML Upgrade Package should be the highest priority,” the report finds.
Work at Croydon, it says, “is the bedrock. It not only provides some immediate capacity and performance benefits, but also unlocks subsequent elements.”
The report assesses all proposals for reinstatement of the Lewes to Uckfield line, which it calls “technically feasible”. These include restoring as much of the original alignment as possible - the exact route is impossible because of subsequent road and
New lines do not serve an existing need. Furthermore, investment in reliability and resilience for the corridor should be focused on BML itself, not diversionary routes via Uckfield or Arundel. London & South Coast Rail Corridor Study
housing development in Lewes. It also includes building a new Ashcombe tunnel to take the line towards Falmer on the edge of Brighton, and an alternative new route to the Eastbourne line near Glynde.
“In general, our analysis has found that the construction of a link between Lewes and Uckfield will not have a significant impact on patronage in the London direction,” the report finds.
Existing demand is already met on the Brighton line, from Uckfield, and by people driving to other stations on the main line. The journey time from Lewes to London Bridge via Uckfield would be 91-98 minutes, compared with today’s 75 minutes on the main line. Census data revealed that the commuting market southwards was small. And new journeys into Brighton would amount to no more than 250 a day.
A basic Lewes-Uckfield reopening would cost £150 million to £ 250m for a single-line, unelectrified track. With the Ashcombe tunnel and a viaduct over the A27, the prices would rise to £ 500m-£1bn. The alternative route via Glynde is put at £ 250m-£ 500m.
With thousands of new houses planned for East Sussex, the question becomes whether future development would change commuting patterns. But the sites earmarked for housing are not on a scale that would bring significant cash contributions from developers.
The study concludes: “If there is enough local support for Lewes-Uckfield to proceed, all these factors add up to the need for an entirely new approach, not simply an updated feasibility study. This new approach would consider the need for the investment within the context of the region’s ambitions.”
That’s probably as close as the consultants could go to saying that although it could be rebuilt, in the current circumstances it is most unlikely to happen. At least, not for another generation.
The report also analyses proposals for a new north-south link connecting the Brighton line and a potential Uckfield line from the Croydon area to Lewisham, Canary Wharf, Stratford and beyond onto the West Anglia or Great Eastern Main Lines. This could be seen as an East Croydon/ Victoria/London Bridge bypass, using a disused alignment through Selsdon and tracks currently taken by the Croydon Tramlink.
WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff says that in terms of meeting demand, such a scheme is not required before the 2040s or 2050s. The new route would be of use to only one in ten current Brighton line users, and thus the scheme would provide little relief to the pressures on the existing route. No technical studies have been made of the scheme.
Costs would also be similar to Crossrail or Crossrail 2, reaching many billions of pounds. The report suggests there is no need to safeguard the Selsdon route from future development as “the alignment is unlikely to be required for a future new line”.
The study briefly assesses another idea: an entirely new fast line from Brighton to central London. This would mostly be in tunnels, with stops at Crawley, Gatwick and Croydon. Costs would be at least £ 20bn to £ 30bn with a journey time half that of the ‘classic’ route, bringing the seaside to within half an hour of the capital.
In carefully phrased language, the report demurely suggests this idea could perhaps be considered within long-term planning processes, once Crossrail 2 is complete.
The study also examines a potential doubling and electrification of the existing line to Uckfield, and found that electrification alone would not provide additional capacity through more or longer trains.
The 25 miles of work would require overhead wires and therefore dual-voltage rolling stock. Network Rail reported this would represent poor value for money.
Redoubling the track would enable additional services on the branch line, but trains would then have to compete for limited track space towards London or have an alternative terminus at East Croydon.
Both Network Rail and Govia Thameslink Railway take the view that these train paths are better used for additional services on the main line, where capacity needs are greater.
A new Arundel chord could enable a service between Brighton, Arundel, Horsham and London via the Arun Valley, offering a diversionary route if the main line is blocked south of Three Bridges.
The report finds that the benefits of this £44m-£ 56m idea are marginal, compared with services running further to Littlehampton and then reversing direction. “We do not consider the Arundel chord should be progressed,” is the conclusion.
In its recommendations for a strategic plan, the report considers the existing planning protection for the disused trackbed between Uckfield and Lewes should be maintained. It says “there may be potential” to start developing either that route or a new line solution in the next ten to 20 years, to be implemented 30 to 40 years from now.
Brian Hart has long led the campaign for Brighton Main Line 2. He responds that although the report has only recently been published, the work for it was undertaken a year ago. He says much has changed since then.
“The very restricted demand assumptions took no note of the 100,000 jobs which the Canary Wharf Group has announced it plans to create, or the 30,000 planned new jobs just along the river at the Royal Albert Dock. Reopened schemes in less populated areas have historically seen predicted demand well exceeded. New railways create their own markets.
“We disagree with a number of the report’s conclusions on rail uptake. We also feel that they have underestimated the resilience benefits to the existing Brighton Main Line, which currently cannot be closed for long enough to maintain it properly.
“We feel that the real game changer is the emergence of a commercial consortium willing to fund the reopening of the BML2 line and to create a London link tunnel running from south of Croydon through Canary Wharf to Stratford and beyond. Private sector interest in BML2 has grown enormously over the past year.”
London & Southern Counties Railways has a limited website which claims to be “managed by a multi-disciplinary team with expertise in managing international business consortia, national and international rail and metro projects.”
A PR consultant for the group told RAIL: “LSCR brings together world class expertise in infrastructure, economics, property and financing.” But he would not name any of them.
He added: “The project is obviously at an early stage as pre-feasibility processes to create a viable and fundable proposition are undertaken. There are ongoing discussions with potential investors.”
The DfT, meanwhile, declined to provide anyone for interview about the report. It’s a sensitive issue - the enthusiastic and dedicated campaign for reinstating the line has run for 30 years and has a strong measure of local support. In a brief statement, the DfT told
RAIL: “The Transport Secretary has met with promoters of the BML2 concept and has encouraged them to continue to develop their proposal for it to be delivered and funded privately.”
Network Rail decided that because the report came from the DfT it couldn’t comment publicly, even though this latest study fully endorses its own position.
Off the record, RAIL was told by a wellplaced source: “If you want to improve the Brighton Main Line, then you invest in the Brighton Main Line, not another route.
“Apart from Brighton itself, the biggest flows in the region are from Gatwick Airport and Haywards Heath, which are both on the main line. A diversionary route would be great, and of course it should never have been closed. But there is simply no business case for it.”
Network Rail’s plans for the Brighton Main Line have not yet gained funding - they will be considered by the DfT over the next year, but nothing will happen until the current Thameslink programme is complete.
Passengers have endured years of disruption already, and reworking Croydon will add years more. East Croydon station will need a new island platform, and the already complex Windmill Bridge Junction will need comprehensive reconstruction. This latest report will strengthen the case for it.
Private sector interest in BML2 has grown enormously over the past year. Brian Hart, Project Manager, Brighton Main Line 2
Source: London and South Coast Rail Corridor Study, Department for Transport
Govia Thameslink Railway 700104 (forming the 1435 Brighton to Bedford) passes 700113 (working the 1254 Bedford to Three Bridges) near Gatwick Airport on September 29 2016. The over-congested Brighton Main Line is currently one of Britain’s worst performing railways, with chronic overcrowding on peak time services to and from the capital.
Summary of Lewes-Uckfield Line Proposals Source: London and South Coast Rail Corridor Study, Department for Transport
GTR 700115 awaits departure from Brighton on February 13. Demand is forecast to double on the Brighton Main Line into London over the next 40 years.
Windmill Bridge Junction, where lines diverge towards London Victoria and London Bridge, is one of the busiest in the country. Alleviating this bottleneck has been highlighted as a priority for Network Rail in Control Period 6. Southern 171802 approaches East Croydon on October 24 2015, having just traversed the junction with a southbound service.
Source: London and South Coast Rail Corridor Study, Department for Transport Summary of BML2 London Section Proposals