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

Rail (UK) - - Feature Network -

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

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