Wealden Line Campaign

Friday 18 January 2019

2002 to 2009 - All in Vain

Network Rail created, though commuters suggest ‘Notwork’ a more suitable title, whilst WLC points out the glaring gaps in the so-called ‘network’ in the South East.

Byers rules out any further electrification, saying diesel is cheaper.

In Parliament, Norman Baker complains everyone keeps passing the buck and says Government needs to produce a ‘route map’ showing how lines such as Lewes – Uckfield can be reopened.

Rail Passenger Council’s Annual Report says it was “bitterly disappointed to find no commitment by GoVia to reopen the closed lines between Lewes and Uckfield and between Eridge and Tunbridge Wells”. RPC says it sees “real value” in scheme for “creating high capacity rail corridors”.

WLC meets latest Transport Minister, John Spellar, who promises “full and urgent investigation” into reopening but asks “What’s wrong with diesels?”

Connex proposes relaying Grove Junction at Tunbridge Wells on line to West as turnback siding. Railtrack contractors begin clearing trees and scrub. Meanwhile TWBC says it supports creation of “quality rail line connecting Lewes, Oxted and Tunbridge Wells”. Other councils and regional MPs respond with similar encouraging comments.

Connex tells WLC “If the two links were to be rebuilt we would certainly consider running trains over them”.

Increasing anger over poor state of Uckfield line services, described as a “Glorified turn-back siding for Edenbridge”.

ESCC plans for an Uckfield gyratory road à la Newhaven and funded by Tesco are discovered.


Turbostar at Crowborough2003
SRA now favours short franchises. It rejects re-doubling of Uckfield line and orders new Turbostar diesel trains to replace failing 40-year old BR diesel-electric units. WLC warns proposed fleet will be inadequate and line will boom with new trains.

Baker castigates SRA over lack of investment, saying “nothing will happen in Sussex” following a visit to Brighton by its chief, Richard Bowker, who said reopening Uckfield line was “not a top priority” and “efforts must be focused on the existing network first”. This ran counter to Connex’s views in 2000 that the BML was fast running out of capacity and a Wealden Main Line was “the only way” of solving the situation.

Wealden’s new MP Charles Hendry promised he and ESCC “will do all we can to push the rail link up the Government’s list of priorities”.

WLC continues to call for Uckfield’s goods yard to be used as commuter car park as new trains will prove extremely popular. Inaugural test runs of new diesel Turbostar units.

SRA representatives greeted with cries of “rubbish” from Eastbourne conference audience when claiming reinstatement of Uckfield line offered “poor value for money”.

Lord Marsh who served as Labour’s Transport Minister in 1968-9 said he couldn’t recollect closing the “Uckfield-Lewis” [sic] link. He left Wilson’s Government to be made chairman of BR and later joined the Conservatives in the House of Lords.

The quango, the Government of the South East (GOSE), proposes deleting Lewes – Uckfield from its regional transport strategy amid protests from MPs and councils and is forced to back down.

The SRA says “capacity restrictions” north of Uckfield weaken case to reopen the Lewes link.

BBC transport correspondent Paul Siegert rings SRA and asks “Why don’t you re-open the Wealden Line?” to which the candid reply came “Because there aren’t any votes in it”.

In a Parliamentary debate Hendry congratulates WLC for its work and says SRA priorities are “misguided” and seemingly only interested in creating prestigious high speed links to the north – “when the real crisis in our rail system is in the overcrowded South East”.
Baker says the new London – Uckfield Turbostsar services could be extended to Lewes, but Rail Minister Tony McNulty disagrees, saying it would be necessary to electrify the route to make it diversionary. He pointed to the high cost of electrification and accused the line’s proponents of ignoring single-track nature of large sections of line, adding “even if all these problems were solved” the trains would face the wrong way at Lewes – going towards Eastbourne instead of Brighton. The Minister said he would “watch the ‘Fill the gap’ or ‘Close the link’ campaign – or whatever else it is called – with real interest”.

Brighton reports worsening air quality from high volume of vehicle exhaust particulates.

WLC attempts to promote new direct Turbostar services between Seaford/Newhaven and London via Uckfield.

Civil Engineers survey group at Isfield

Civil engineers from NorWest Holst and Bride Parks Merlin conduct trackbed survey to assess reopening Lewes link whereupon ESCC decides to start a ‘Rail Project Board’.

SRA publishes its Brighton Main Line Route Utilisation Strategy which concludes demand is fast outstripping capacity and railheading is making conditions even worse. However, it dismisses reopening the parallel Uckfield line, saying it is “outside the scope of the RUS”.

Despite renewed efforts, a commuter car park at Uckfield station site remains stalled.  

Consortium (Kilbride and Intermodality) give presentation at Westminster on reopening. Nick Gallop from Intermodality meets WLC and says route could be operational in 5 years as a single-line, diesel operated extension to Lewes. Costs would be about £50m. Considers it imperative to keep costs low at initial stage and route would be extension of existing Hurst Green – Uckfield configuration with half-hourly service. He says schemes with £100m-£200m price tags fail to get off the ground. Double track and electrification can come later as patronage builds.

WLC congratulates Baker and Hendry on re-election and commends ESCC for supporting reopening.

Southern reports shock 40% rise in usage on Uckfield line.

SRA supports providing a turnback siding at Tunbridge Wells to manage increased services and demand.

Hopes are again raised after preliminary inspection of Uckfield goods yard reveal car park could be achieved at relatively low cost. Car park proposal dashed by BRBR which remains committed to selling land to developer who would ‘reserve’ 7m-wide strip for track – should line ever reopen.

Brighton & Hove City Council passes resolution in support of reopening Uckfield line because BML is full and both new and alternative connections to the City are needed.    
WealdenWay Partnership (consortium backed by Kilbride Group, Intermodality and Norwest Holst) produces detailed Scoping Study and says line could be running in 2012 in time for London Olympics. Route would be unelectrified, diesel and principally a single-track line and would operate a half-hourly service between Croydon and Lewes. A long passing loop through Isfield would be needed. Automatic half-barrier level crossings would be provided, with full continental barriers in Uckfield and an A22 bypass bridge over the new railway. Detailed design would last through 2007 followed by planning process with construction taking two years (Jan 2010 – Dec 2011) with services starting January 2012. Funding for project would come from housing development (‘roof tax’) throughout entire Seaford – Oxted corridor.

A number of large scale rail projects in Scotland begin to happen.

Having financed the work so far, Wealdenway asks councils for £150,000 to produce engineering designs and business case. ESCC formally sets up its ‘Rail Project Board’ (RPB) to take control and asks for contributions from local councils. WLC warns Baker not to let ESCC “into the driving seat.” RPB chairman, who is vice-chairman of ESCC, Cllr Rupert Simmons, tells the media “This will resolve once and for all whether this project is going to happen. We will be able to decide yes, we will give it our full support, or no, it is time to put a stop to the whole thing.”

ESCC reveals since 1979 it had spent £80,000 on numerous reports, most of which seemed set out to prove there was no economic or sound reason to support reopening. WLC reminded its members of ‘Yes, Minister’s Sir Humphrey Appleby’s famous words “The less you intend doing something the more you keep talking about it”.

ESCC proposes Uckfield Gyratory road scheme across station site. Its transport chief Bob Wilkins said it would be “more like a large roundabout”. With headlines ‘Stop this madness’ the Sussex Express echoes fears of traders and townsfolk by launching a ‘Stop the Gyratory’ campaign. Wilkins goes on the offensive, saying: “There is absolutely no way we will pursue a scheme that will solve one problem if in doing so it prevents another from happening. So, for Brian Hart to suggest that we are pursuing a highway scheme that will kill off the railway line is total nonsense.” The Leader of ESCC Cllr Peter Jones CBE, criticizes WLC for conducting a debate through the media, saying: “I think you are wrong on the reasons why the railway closed, but also since it is this County Council which is leading the way on getting the line reopened and not the Wealden Line Campaign, I think you need to refresh your view on history”.

ESCC transport officer Peter Hayward tells Uckfield Town Council he would be “obliged to oppose any application for a car park use on that [Uckfield station] site.”

The Dft commissions Network Rail to study how capacity can be substantially increased on the Brighton Line. The report looks at introducing double-deck or 16-car trains, concluding seven new tunnels for the former, with infrastructure costing £1bn for either option, plus another £1bn for new or additional rolling stock. Though technically capable of carrying more passengers, services would be slower and negate any capacity gains. BML would still be subject to delays, breakdowns and emergencies with no alternative route.
Network Rail tells ESCC it wishes to be associated with the Lewes – Uckfield Reopening Study. Despite having completed detailed work into re-opening Lewes – Uckfield, the Kilbride/Wealdenway partnership’s request to take part in ESCC’s Study is turned down.

WLC DfT Presentation WLC Members Ian Smith, Brian Hart and Duncan Bennett at the DfT

WLC meets Transport Minister Tom Harris who is impressed with plan to reopen line and asks for a business case.

Network Rail’s 2007 Business Plan considers ‘Uckfield Line Upgrade’ to address rising demand exclusive to the route. These include platform extensions, removal of single-line constraints with a return to double-track working, raising line speeds and ultimately third rail electrification. NR says demand is currently suppressed by awkward singled sections.

Hart tells WLC members as Wealden Line is so critically important to the BML, “I sometimes wonder whether I should have called it the Brighton Line Campaign!”

Network Rail engineers consider re-opening Lewes link and produce detailed track and signalling diagrams for double-line and single-line options, speed profiles for trains (diesel Turbostar and Voyager) and designs for new 12-car station on original site (where ESCC’s gyratory road is planned). Mott MacDonald is engaged to produce a business case estimated to cost £130,000. MPs Baker and Hendry appointed onto ‘Central Rail Corridor Board’ (CRCB) by ESCC to help oversee study which they are leading.

Concerned at the way the Study is being handled by ESCC, WLC launches ‘Wealdenlink’ in the hope of demonstrating that reopening Lewes-Uckfield is not about local transport needs, but an irrational gap that needs bridging to become part of the whole network. WLC urges Network Rail to treat the reinstatement as part of a new main line between Seaford/Eastbourne and London via Uckfield.

ESCC, supported by Baker and Hendry, vote down an application by town councils of Lewes, Uckfield and Crowborough to have voting rights on CRCB despite their joint contribution £50,000.

WLC airs concerns that positive statements by Network Rail in its original draft (obtained under FOI Act) are missing from final report authorized by ESCC which shows reinstatement cannot be justified. Report concludes a principally single-line, diesel operated service would cost £141m and has a poor business case.

The CRCB said it was satisfied with the conclusions of the Study under the parameters it set, whilst ESCC accepted the result and supported the disbanding of the CRCB.

WLC uncovers an attempt by ESCC to claw back its £25,000 contribution, plus another £3,000 for ‘officer time’ following an under-spend of £32,000 on the Study.

Network Rail rejects the case for reinstating Lewes – Uckfield because the remaining Uckfield line would have to be upgraded and electrified. Even though it would still be, at best, ten minutes slower from Lewes than BML, it says the greatest problems remain – East Croydon platform capacity; Windmill Bridge junction at Croydon; London terminal platform capacity; and constraints through Gatwick.

Mott MacDonald admits Brighton & Hove rail traffic/potential not taken into account during assessment.

ESCC representatives and Network Rail give presentation to perplexed pro-rail All Party Parliamentary Rail Group at Westminster on why Lewes-Uckfield reinstatement should not be supported. WLC attendees present were appalled by statement from CRCB representatives “society as a whole would be worse off through reopening this line”.

Lewes-Uckfield: A Case UnansweredWLC publishes ‘Lewes – Uckfield: A case unanswered’ highlighting the anomalies in the 2008 Study as well as numerous statements from ESCC revealing its hostility to reopening the line.

Managing Director of Kilbride Properties tells Local Transport Today “We’re not spending much time on Lewes-Uckfield at the moment. It is very clear that East Sussex County Council is trying to stop the project”. Kilbride goes on to enter successful partnership with Devon County Council to pursue reopening of Tavistock – Bere Alston railway line.

ESCC stages a public presentation of plans with a deliberately vague new road crossing Uckfield station site. When questioned whether this was a bridge or a level crossing, an officer admitted “at grade” which would sever the trackbed.

A £10,000 review of the 2008 Lewes – Uckfield Study by consultants Jacobs confirms MM conclusions, but predicts an even worse business case saying a 2-car train would be sufficient to deal with traffic between the two towns.

After nearly 20 years, work finally begins on providing a station building at Uckfield. 

Brian Hart tells WLC committee he thinks the case for Lewes – Uckfield is too weak and WLC needs to address rail industry’s wider problem which is predominantly insufficient capacity and consequently spends six months developing his ideas.

Network Rail publishes its numerous draft Route Utilisation Strategies for Sussex, Kent, South London. Results reveal the network is experiencing unmanageable growth in demand, worse affected routes being both Brighton and Tonbridge main lines. The new Thameslink trains (still awaiting firm order) to have ‘reduced seating and higher standing capacity’ to meet increase demand from 2020 when BML is expected to reach capacity ceiling.

Hart conceives Brighton Main Line 2 Project (BML2) and gives an advance and private presentation to WLC committee and invited guests to test reaction.

back to top