Wealden Line Campaign

Friday 18 January 2019

1995 to 2001 - The Connex Years

Sainsburys build across trackbed at Tunbridge Wells West and then apply for retrospective planning permission.

Following the Cowden disaster a ‘Bring Back Dual Track’ campaign is launched by the media. A furore broke out after a leaked BR memo from 1980 was sent to the press stating the Uckfield line should only be maintained for safety until closure eventually become necessary.

Rail bosses flatly deny any responsibility for the Cowden crash and the enquiry blames a driver for passing a signal at danger and running onto the single line. BR is obliged to revise signalling to ensure it cannot happen again.

A packed Uckfield Civic Centre hears Glenda Jackson MP and the Wealden MP clash over railway privatisation.  John Major’s Government turns down latest plan to electrify the Uckfield branch.

After protracted correspondence, David Sainsbury provides a written guarantee to remove supermarket buildings blocking route at the company’s own expense should railway ever reopen.

ESCC engages consultants Mott MacDonald (MM) to study reopening Lewes – Uckfield – Tunbridge Wells line which it calls ‘East Sussex Central Rail Corridor’.

Engineers inspect Grove tunnel between West and Central stations as part of latest study.

WLC meets MM to discuss and approve a new alignment through Groombridge avoiding housing estate encroachment.

WLC member Norman Baker elected to Parliament as Lewes (Lib Dem) MP in ‘New Labour’ landslide.

Uckfield’s former station becomes a site fit for profitable redevelopment.

Uckfield Station

BR Property Board again attempt selling Uckfield station but sale is frozen.

MM report recommends heavy rail reinstatement rather than light rail or guided busway for Lewes – Uckfield. Options are hourly diesel service Tunbridge Wells – Lewes (£14m) or electric (range £20m – £25m).

Privatised infrastructure company Railtrack hints Lewes – Uckfield line could reopen as part of £16billion package of nationwide investment. New train operating company Connex agrees to run the trains if link restored.

Norman Baker tells WLC the new Transport Minister Glenda Jackson is “clearly sympathetic to idea of reopening”.

Connex says it needs more train paths between London and Brighton.

Transport Minister Jackson acknowledges strong support for reopening and accepts 3,400 signature petition from Norman Baker who tells WLC “The door is open – all we have to do is walk through”. BR Property Board attempts to sell Uckfield station to same developer for conversion to doctors’ surgery and sheltered housing in goods yard.

Sustrans given Grove spur trackbed (between West and Central stations) at Tunbridge Wells and offer it to Borough Council for safekeeping.

The owner of Barcombe Mills station and the Lavender Line at Isfield object to line reopening.

Glenda Jackson says she eagerly awaits a business case; however ESCC says Lewes – Tunbridge Wells line might not open for another decade - or more. MM says line could be reopened by 2004.

ESCC, concerned about railway reopening across Uckfield High Street, asks MM to consider instead a completely new direct line to Brighton via Ringmer. This would necessitate a reversal at Uckfield to allow trains to continue. Baker says Ringmer ‘option’ not viable and criticizes ESCC for its lack of “zest” in pursuing reopening.

Low-budget (£12m) electrification scheme using aluminium conductor rails is considered for remaining Hurst Green-Uckfield branch, but it would be restricted to powering 4-car trains only (8-car scheme would cost £30m).

Connex and Railtrack worried by mounting pressure on Brighton line with overcrowding worsening but say Uckfield line is constrained by single-line sections. Connex promises to look seriously at reopening links to Lewes and Tunbridge Wells.

Another application to redevelop Uckfield station site with housing is lodged, Baker asks Minister Jackson what action can be taken to stop it. New Transport Minister Gus MacDonald stops sale.

 High Speed Railway 2000
Connex’s 20-year franchise bid proposes creating two new main lines, from Littlehampton to London via Dorking and from Seaford to London via Uckfield. The ‘Wealden Main Line’ as it is called includes dual tracking throughout and electrification of Lewes and Tunbridge Wells links with 100mph running. Connex says Seaford/Eastbourne – London route will increase overall capacity, whilst Tunbridge Wells connection will open up new journey opportunities and provide alternative route into Central London.

Rival bidder GoVia (‘New Southern Railway’) is much less specific, agreeing to consider an ‘Arun chord’ and passing loops at Worthing for faster services via Horsham as a BML alternative route. Their bid also mentions a “possible” Lewes – Uckfield link and 8-car trains Uckfield – London on a re-doubled route.

Railtrack tells WLC that 1990 singling scheme was “a bit of a botch” to save money.

Assistant Director of Strategic Rail Authority says Lewes – Uckfield is “a major opportunity towards delivering a fit for purpose network for the future”.

Wealden MP says “there can be no question of kicking Uckfield – Lewes into the long grass”.

Baker criticizes GoVia in Parliament for completely omitting Seaford branch from its franchise bid diagram.


   Coach Connex Leaflet

Connex starts ‘Coach Connex’ bus link connecting Uckfield and Lewes railway stations as precursor to genuine commitment to reopening line.

WLC launches its first website.

Connex loses South Central franchise to GoVia. SRA tells WLC that GoVia “believe that at this particular time it is not necessary and does not represent good value for money”. GoAhead’s Rail chief executive Keith Ludeman tells Rail Passengers Council the case is “marginal”; it wouldn’t ease BML congestion and would still need to “negotiate the bottleneck at East Croydon”; services from Coastway East to Gatwick would be worsened; reopened route would not be available “in time to meet the demand surge anticipated later in this decade”; and track capacity for “semi-fast through services to London from East Grinstead and Uckfield would be consumed by coastal trains”.

GoVia also abandons re-doubling Uckfield, saying traffic doesn’t warrant it. Electrification, hinted at in their bid, is also shelved.

WLC accuses SRA of “bungling” franchise and GoVia of being interested only in Brighton Line and extracting as much money out of it as possible. WLC suggests Connex should instead be allowed to work Uckfield line via Tunbridge Wells. SRA says it recognises benefits of creating additional through route between South East Coast and London – “The possibility of the route between Lewes-Uckfield-Tunbridge Wells being introduced into the Connex South Eastern franchise is something we will consider discussing with Connex.” Connex MD Olivier Brousse tells WLC of his tentative interest but insists new Tunbridge Wells service must go beyond Uckfield to South Coast to be viable.

SRA says reopening Lewes-Uckfield could cost £100m whilst, although it is “interested in the reopening” of the Eridge – Tunbridge Wells line, warns that the “Spa Valley Railway incumbency” is a potential barrier.

British Rail Board Residuary sell Grove spur to Railway Paths Ltd for £1.

SRA produces its Strategic Agenda of rail projects, putting Lewes-Uckfield in the 10-year category and electrification of the “East Grinstead – Uckfield line”! The WLC sent the SRA a map.

Labour Government’s new Transport Secretary Stephen Byers abolishes Railtrack and tells WLC that he is “fully aware” of project and would be asking his staff to look into it.

Transport consultants Sinclair Knight Merz express interest in Wealden Line’s enormous potential and development of its twin primary corridors from South Coast to London via Oxted and via Tonbridge. SKM says it would deliver substantial benefits to BML.

Following neglect, vandalism and arson, Uckfield station is demolished and site cleared. Shortly before its abolition Railtrack says 250-space car at Uckfield will be necessary when line is electrified.

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