Wealden Line Campaign

Friday 22 February 2019


The following is an analysis by Chris Curtis, Network Rail’s Project Manager for the Lewes – Uckfield 2008 Reinstatement Study. Written in 2009, it explains why Network Rail cannot support a basic, incremental scheme to reopen the railway from Uckfield into Lewes.

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“Network Rail was commissioned by East Sussex County Council on behalf of the Central Rail Corridor Project Board to produce the report. The Board consists of five voting members, a councillor each from East Sussex County Council (chair), Wealden District Council and Lewes District Council, plus the MPs Norman Baker (Lewes) and Charles Hendry (Wealden). There were also observers from Lewes, Uckfield and Crowborough Town Councils, along with representatives of Parishes in the area plus the Regional Development Agency (SEEDA).

In all my 13 years being involved in projects, I have never been involved in one that was scrutinised and challenged by the project promoters (the CRC Project Board) as much as this one. All of the Board, including ESCC, wanted the project to succeed – as did I – and the challenges put to me as Project Sponsor were all to ensure that we had pursued all possible benefits of the project, made the correct assumptions and followed the correct processes.

The report is a Network Rail report, and we sub-contracted the passenger demand and business case work from Mott MacDonald. The technical part of the report was easy – basically straightforward engineering – but the passenger demand work in particular is a complex piece of work that Network Rail doesn’t have much experience of doing in house, hence using consultants.

All projects have to be assessed to demonstrate they are ‘value for money’ – basically that the project makes sufficient income and/or provides enough benefit to society (converted into monetary terms) to pay for the investment. To do this we produce a business case that adds up all the benefits and all the costs and with some fairly complicated maths determines whether the benefits exceed the costs. In this case, on the assumptions used in the report (all of which were discussed with and accepted by the Project Board) there is no case for reopening this line. In fact, the rail industry and society as a whole would be worse off through reopening the line, as the costs would be greater than the benefits by quite a significant margin. [Study proved a Benefit to Cost Ratio ranging between 0.70 and 0.78. A BCR of 2.0 or above is expected by Government]

I have heard a number of times and from a number of different people words along the lines of ‘the benefits of reopening this line are obvious to everyone’ – however after a lot of detailed work I’m afraid we couldn’t find anywhere near enough.

The main problem is quite simple. The big income earner for all commuter Train Operating Companies serving London is peak time commuting on season tickets. Reopening the line just between Lewes and Uckfield would not encourage more people to commute to London as both stations already have good services to London with two per hour each in the peak.

The forecast demand model demonstrated that the main demand would be between Uckfield and Crowborough to Lewes (Brighton would incur changing trains at Lewes) and vice versa. The trouble is that the distance travelled is small and most would be contra-peak; therefore, whilst there would actually be a reasonable level of demand (as many going south of Uckfield as on the branch today), fares and thus income would be low.
So, the reason Network Rail isn’t showing any enthusiasm is that it would look rather foolish of us, or indeed anyone seeking Government funding, to actively promote or argue for any project that is a net loss to the industry and society. It is a particular issue for us right now – you will have seen the news about our current settlement from the Regulator – basically we’re not going to get enough money over the next 5 years for running the existing railway and projects to expand capacity (e.g. platform extensions throughout the Southern ‘Metro’ area) all of which have very positive impacts on the rail industry and society.

Similarly there is currently a wide debate going on about electrification which also has a great business case on lines where traffic volumes are high. Put simply, there is not enough money to pay for all of these great projects with great business cases, so it is just not sensible to try and promote one without a good case.

There is an argument that the Uckfield line could relieve the BML and we looked at this for the study. There are some problems with this. Firstly the route from Lewes via Uckfield is longer, [by 5 miles] has a lower linespeed, and has many more stations that need to be served; the journey time is thus up to 20 minutes longer than via Gatwick. To speed up the journey time we would either have to upgrade and/or electrify the existing line (expensive) or cut out stops (controversial). Even then it would be, at best, 10 minutes slower than via Gatwick.

Secondly, Southern have quite heavy flows from Coastway East to Haywards Heath, Gatwick and to a lesser extent Three Bridges / Crawley . These flows still have to be provided for. So, even if we could persuade people from Lewes and the coast east of there who are heading to London to switch to a train that takes at least 10 minutes longer via Uckfield, we would still have to run a similar number of services via Gatwick as today – albeit these would be a little less full.

The additional peak capacity available on the BML would be around 10% if everyone switched to the slower services. As a comparison, we are raising peak capacity south of Gatwick on the BML by approx 25% by the simple solution of having longer First Capital Connect trains from 2011 and the extensions to the Gatwick Express which start in a few months time.

The third, and greatest problem, is that the main pinch points on the BML are:

1) East Croydon platform capacity.
2) Windmill Bridge junction.
3) London terminal platform capacity (East London Line and Thameslink programme resolves this).
4) Platform capacity at Gatwick (hopefully resolved through the redevelopment).

This means we couldn’t run more trains than today through East Croydon in the peak. So to run more trains on the Uckfield line we would need to sacrifice services from elsewhere. Just resolving Croydon / Windmill Bridge is a £200-300m job; even if we had the money to do this then we would have to consider carefully where to run the additional services to / from, and the Uckfield line would be considered alongside all the other routes through East Croydon.
Finally, comparison with recent reopenings elsewhere in the country (Larkhall, Ebbw Vale, Alloa, Robin Hood, and Aylesbury Vale later this year) is relevant, but does show significant differences. The above have all been successful because they connected reasonably-sized centres of population in economically deprived areas (excluding Aylesbury Vale) that previously had no rail link, to significant economic centres. In most cases this accompanied significant levels of new development - for example, Aylesbury Vale is a station being built next to 3,000 new houses; Alloa station has several hundred new apartments on its doorstep; 2,000 houses were built at Rogerstone on the Ebbw Vale line with more further up the valley. In the latter two cases these new houses and the people who live in them weren’t factored into the original demand assessments for the line, hence the lines are exceeding forecasts. It’s also worth mentioning that all of these except Larkhall are passenger reopenings of freight lines meaning the capital costs were substantially lower.

With respect to Lewes – Uckfield; firstly this part of the world is hardly deprived economically; secondly the main economic centre in the area is London, to which Lewes and Uckfield already have train services; and thirdly there are no plans for significant housing development on the line of the reopened route that would create new traffic to London from the reopened section.

I know it’s not the answer Wealdenline have been looking for, but we are where we are. I’ve invited Brian Hart for a chat through this but haven’t heard anything back from him.”


Brian HartBrian Hart’s response to this:-

Whilst many of us would strongly disagree with the comment: “All of the Board, including ESCC, wanted the project to succeed” we do not disagree to any great degree with most of this analysis.

However, it is important to bear in mind that when the railway was truncated at Uckfield in 1969, it was the loss of a fully-functioning secondary main line between London and Brighton which has proved the catastrophe for the South, rather than a physical rail connection between two towns in East Sussex.

The building of East Sussex County Council’s 1960s ‘Lewes Inner Relief Road (Phoenix Causeway)’ was not only the direct cause of this truncation but, along with subsequent town centre redevelopment in Lewes, prevents the Brighton line being reopened. Consequently, all reopening studies (including the 2008 one) over forty years have been unable to address the main problem – the continuing absence of Brighton’s second main line. In essence, what has been proposed every time is the reopening of a local railway (single line, diesel operated) because the service would have to terminate at Lewes, or a destination other than Brighton.

Not surprisingly, numerous attempts by the Wealden Line Campaign over 25 years to promote a London – Seaford main line have met with no success although, as is shown in the ‘History of the Wealden Line Campaign’ section, no one can accuse us of not trying.

We are now in a completely different world from 1986 when we began, whilst even in the past two years circumstances have changed. These are making the case stronger by the day for a direct route to be restored back into Brighton.

The result of the 2008 Lewes – Uckfield Study and Chris Curtis’s conclusions are not particularly disputed, but there is no question whatsoever of this project being kicked into the long grass for another twenty years or more.

2009 was largely spent analysing numerous rail industry reports and detailed studies which explained the extremely serious challenges it is now facing. Understanding how revolutionary new technology in tunnelling and high-specification rail engineering was being deployed elsewhere enabled us to confront the real problems head on. This is why Brighton Main Line 2 was conceived first as an idea, thoroughly scrutinized on site visits, tested to our best ability and then presented to the rail industry, politicians and media.

“BML2 was a breakthrough moment in my view. A great piece of insight, vision and creativity and commonsense” said an industry colleague. BML2 has also been praised by others in the rail industry and media, whilst we are now seeing powerful local authority leaders and politicians appreciating what it can offer to many millions of people.

We believe BML2 has an extremely powerful business case. The overall costs will be high, but the financial rewards will be immense, especially in the capital where the London Phase will bring lasting benefits for rail and air travellers.

BML2 is not about reopening a railway between two towns in East Sussex, but increasing passenger volume and new capacity where it is needed most; restoring valuable lost connections; providing much-needed alternative routes and introducing new direct links with faster overall journey times.

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