Rail Professional spoke to Brian Hart, project manager at BML2, about recent developments that mean it could offer a feasible solution to the South East’s capacity constraints…
Schemes to re-open the old ‘BML2’ route have been around for a long time – why?
BML2’s genesis lies in long-standing capacity problems in the South East. We were not meant to be in this predicament. In 1962 British Rail planned electrifying South Croydon – Lewes via Uckfield, its second most important route to the Sussex Coast. This stalled when a bisecting road scheme in Lewes town centre threatened the continuance of the rail service. In response, BR attempted to retain its coastal connection by reopening a former Victorian spur via Hamsey, even though this forfeited its direct route into Brighton and trains would henceforth face towards Eastbourne or reverse at Lewes for Brighton. The £120,000 required was not sanctioned and eventually the former main line was terminated at Uckfield in 1969 to enable the completion of East Sussex County Council’s road scheme.
Simultaneously, all direct services between London and Tunbridge Wells (West) via Oxted were withdrawn, leaving just a Tonbridge – Eridge shuttle service and Uckfield – London trains. The consequences were devastating as the usefulness of the route was severely curtailed and plans to electrify the remainder were shelved.
The loss of the Lewes section was hugely contentious and calls to reopen continued throughout the 1970’s. In 1981 Sunday services were withdrawn on the withering Uckfield branch, followed in 1985 by all Eridge – Tonbridge services and the closure of what had once been the main rail link between Sussex and Kent. With the barest of maintenance, the route’s nadir came in 1990 with cost-cutting partial singling between Hever and Uckfield.
So why hasn’t it happened before now?
The Wealden Line Campaign began in 1986 to promote the route’s strategic value to the surrounding network. In 1987 Network SouthEast offered to reopen the Lewes link for £6 million – provided East Sussex and Kent County Councils jointly contributed £4.5 million. Both declined.
By 2000, numerous studies had assessed reopening, including British Rail; Atkins; Steer, Davies Gleave; Buchanan; Mott MacDonald etc, but with no direct route into Brighton the case remained weak. Despite this, in 2001 Connex – aware of the urgent need to relieve the increasingly congested Brighton line – submitted within its franchise bid the creation of the ‘Wealden Main Line’ operating between Eastbourne – Uckfield – London.
Further reopening hopes were raised in 2007 by ‘WealdenWay’ with privately-funded ‘roof tax’ development between Seaford and Oxted. At this juncture Network Rail declared its interest and contributed to another study. Yet again, this proposed a variation of the Victorian connection into Lewes despite its rejection every time by the Strategic Rail Authority and the DfT as ‘facing the wrong way’.
This 2008 study proved a poor BCR, so why wasn’t this the end of the line for you?
To be honest, it really seemed the end of a 40-year aspiration to reopen this route; however, nine months of careful study produced a more up-to-date version of a BML2 scheme. It was the right time to launch it, following Network Rail’s Sussex and Kent route studies which concluded that barriers on increasing capacity were evident on the Brighton and Tonbridge main lines. In 2010 the campaign was invited to give a presentation on BML2 to Network Rail at Waterloo, followed by another at GoAhead House to Southern. Despite serious interest, major stumbling blocks continued to be lack of government backing and funding.
Can you explain briefly what the current scheme comprises.
The scheme now under consideration consists of three interconnecting phases: re-establishing direct rail connections to both Lewes and Brighton; redoubling and improving the line between Uckfield and Hever, including both connections restored to Tunbridge Wells (from Ashurst and Eridge); and crucially, building a tunnel which would create important links into London. This would take rail traffic underground south of Croydon thus avoiding congested parts of the network, and run through to Stratford with intermediate stations including the Old Kent Road Corridor and Canary Wharf.
The Sussex phase involves reopening to the coast with a direct line into Lewes for trains to Newhaven/Seaford and Eastbourne. But to make this viable the scheme incorporates an all-important direct connection into Brighton, running through a new South Downs tunnel (1.5miles / 2.4km).
The new lines could be to NR’s standard of 100mph with no intermediate stations. Upgrading and resignalling of the East Coastway route into Brighton has already been discussed with NR, as have modifications at Brighton station. Excavating a redundant cab road for two new tracks and platform faces, plus another closed one on the eastern side, appears possible.
The Sussex Coast would immediately gain a viable alternative route to London, useful for passengers as well as NR in times of disruption or engineering occupations on the Brighton Line. Point-to-point journeys would be easier, less stressful and quicker with a new route able to offer more intensive services.
Are there wider benefits?
Definitely, because as many others have observed, rail links are not just about transport, but supporting and expanding the economy such as local businesses, housing, tourism and university expansion too. Railways are simply the best generator of growth, and infrastructure projects like BML2 really deliver on the government’s drive to create a modern industrial strategy.
The new connectivity will bring large areas of the south coast within commuting distance of Canary Wharf and (via the new Bakerloo and the Jubilee lines) the City of London, as well as creating new options for access to both Gatwick and Stansted Airports.
Are the benefits for Kent as great as for Sussex?
There are similar capacity issues on the Tonbridge Main Line where numerous operational constraints preclude increasing services. Reopening the once-thriving main line from Tunbridge Wells (West) via Oxted would enable more commuter trains to operate to London. Many Tunbridge Wells commuters work at Canary Wharf and Docklands, so they would gain a faster and easier commute. Combined with Crossrail, this will substantially reduce inner London congestion.
Commuters who transfer to BML2 at Tunbridge Wells will release much-needed additional capacity between Tonbridge and Sevenoaks, valuable in both passenger and operational terms.
Are there issues to overcome with reopening the Tunbridge Wells connection?
The closed sections have been wisely safeguarded and largely protected from redevelopment. Land sale covenants and local authority planning policies are helpful to the possibility of reopening this line.
Sainsbury’s gave an undertaking to remove any structures if the railway reopened and we hope they would feel encouraged to redevelop their store. They stand to benefit immensely from this great opportunity.
The heritage railway which operates at weekends from here to Eridge on the Uckfield line would have to relinquish the route as such exclusive operations would be incompatible with a modern double-track electrified railway running intensive services.
Aside from commuter services, there has endured consistent support for the restoration of valuable regional services between Kent, Surrey and Sussex which were withdrawn in the 1960’s. Brighton and Lewes to Tunbridge Wells and Tonbridge are examples frequently mentioned.
Can you explain how the current scheme would benefit London.
The London link tunnel is essential to the viability of the Sussex and Kent phases. Increasing route capacity, which is the ability to run more trains, and creating connectivity are the primary objectives.
This has always been the most difficult part of the scheme to address and this particular phase has evolved from earlier ‘BML2’ conceptions. It is by far the most expensive; however, it is the most rewarding in terms of value and financial return.
Back in 2010, the BML2 group was obliged to suggest reviving the Selsdon – Lewisham route, simply because there are no other possible rail corridors through South East London, or with spare capacity. Initially, we also pondered whether these trains could be routed into a London terminus using then emerging digital signalling control. The transport minister at the time, Theresa Villiers, explained: ‘In order for BML2 to be a strong contender, it would be important for you to develop your thinking further regarding how BML2 services could be integrated into the congested stretches of railway between New Cross and London Bridge.’
It soon became very clear that a terminal option wouldn’t work. In early 2012 a letter from Theresa Villiers to Brighton MP Simon Kirby explained the difficulties of providing further capacity on the Brighton Line, pointing out that the new Thameslink 12-car formations to be delivered in 2015 would ‘be a useful medium-term contribution to BML capacity but will not, on its own, provide a long-term solution.’ She added that, until a solution to terminal capacity could be found, there would no point in carrying out a thorough review of the project. At the bottom of her letter she penned a personal note to Simon Kirby, commenting on the bottlenecks into the big London stations creating a barrier ‘…which it’s not currently possible for the BML2 scheme to get over’.
It was against this background that we began to consider a new tunnelled route going through to Stratford via Canary Wharf. Very soon it became clear that this was a solution which attracted the interest of the rail industry and politicians at both the national and local level.
The enthusiasm for the London section created the catalyst for a group of infrastructure businesses to come together under the London and Southern Railways Consortium (LSCR) – to examine the concept of a tunnelled solution and the business case. Far from the problems associated with trying to use the Selsdon – Lewisham rail corridor, LSCR are aiming to deliver Network Rail’s aspiration of a fast, tunnelled link from the Croydon area into London. This could connect with the upcoming Bakerloo line extension, Canary Wharf (Crossrail and the Jubilee Line) and Stratford.
Are there equal benefits north of the Thames?
We think that there are some exciting connections to be made which might take the thinking beyond Stratford. Our expectation is that these will be examined as part of a fuller feasibility study.
With government budgets under stress, can the project be funded?
The Consortium which is now taking the project forward is operating on the basis that private sector funding through international investors would be made available for 100 per cent of the scheme.
A team of first class advisors including a ‘big four’ accountancy practice, international railway and engineering consultancies and a major law firm has been working on preliminary scoping, and as a result there exists sufficient confidence in the worth and potential of the project for sponsors to raise the necessary capital to prepare a detailed feasibility study. Innovative thinking is being brought to bear not only on the engineering aspects but also the financial framework, the legal approach and the potentially hugely important benefits the scheme would bring as regards housing and employment opportunities.
Dependent upon the outcome of the feasibility study there is the potential for the LSCR Consortium to fund, design and deliver a project with all the benefits of BML2 and the London link tunnel. The success of the Chiltern Railways Project Evergreen has shown that private sector developed infrastructure can be delivered and integrated into the overall national network.
What about all-important political support?
The project has long benefited from strong support from south coast MP’s and together with them the secretary of state Chris Grayling recently met with the LSCR Consortium. He has expressed a keen interest in the project, which not only solves many problems but lays the foundations for growth and prosperity in the region. It exemplifies the government’s modern industrial strategy and aspiration to build a country that works for everyone.
So, from campaign into reality?
The LSCR Consortium saw the increasing government appetite for private investment in infrastructure as an opportunity to move the dedicated work of the campaign’s BML2 project onto a fully professional, project footing. Their pre-feasibility work has been modelled on the BML2 route options and, as you would expect, has highlighted some areas where they are carrying out optioneering to produce a scheme suitable for private investment. LSCR has brought together expertise in infrastructure, economics, property and financing. The BML2 group will continue to make the case for additional connectivity and capacity, and are excited by the prospect of many years of campaigning finally becoming a real project.