A Study In Sussex Part 11: Diverted to the Oxted Lines

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It seems to be a truism that the less important a railway line is, the more interest there is in it. Of all the lines in the southern Home Counties it is the line to Uckfield which seems to incite the most passion and desire to comment on it. This is despite the fact that relatively few people use it. We have briefly covered this before in part 2 and, with reference to the Brighton Main Line 2 proposal in part 10 but because there are so many controversial proposals for this line, and because they arouse such interest, we will cover it again in depth. For completeness, and to appreciate the bigger picture, we also look at the modern day East Grinstead Line – a line that in many ways is so similar yet so different.

Oxted Line diagram

Diagram of the Oxted lines

We saw in our article on South Croydon that there is a line there that diverges eastwards from the Brighton Main Line. This line goes to Oxted and the station beyond, Hurst Green, where it then diverges again. One branch continues southwards three stations to East Grinstead whilst the other takes a more southeasterly route for a number of miles. It then turns and heads southwesterly before eventually terminating at Uckfield. In both cases these are remnants of former through routes that went all the way to Lewes.

For convenience we split our look at these lines into three:

  • The line to Oxted and Hurst Green
  • The branch to East Grinstead
  • the branch to Uckfield

South Croydon to Oxted and Hurst Green

The railway to Oxted starts just south of South Croydon station, but for most purposes can be thought of as starting at East Croydon – as few trains for Oxted call at South Croydon. In between South Croydon and Oxted are four stations of very different character.

Sanderstead

Sanderstead station looking north

Sanderstead station is, in many ways, a typical suburban station. There is a trailing crossover to the south which is used once a day to enable an early morning train to Victoria to start from there.

Riddlesdown

Riddlesdown station looking south with Riddlesdown tunnel in the distance

Riddlesdown station is also fairly typical, but it is also located in an area where bus services are not good and so is more important to the local inhabitants than a cursory look at a map might suggest. Its rural feel belies the fact that it is surrounded by houses.

South of Riddlesdown station the line tunnels under Riddlesdown itself and runs parallel to the Caterham Line for a while – but at a much higher elevation on the other side of the valley – before it gets to Upper Warlingham. One is now out of London and indisputably in Surrey, but still in Zone 6. The station at Upper Warlingham is roughly as well used as that at nearby Whyteleafe, which suggests that the slightly faster journey time from Upper Warlingham (typically 5 minutes faster to East Croydon) and the two storey car park in some ways make up for the more frequent service from Whyteleafe. Upper Warlingham is also the current limit of signalling control from Three Bridges – to the south it is locally controlled by a signal box at Oxted covering both the East Grinstead and Uckfield lines.

Upper Warlingham

A surprisingly rural scene at Upper Warlingham looking north towards London

In complete contrast to the previous stations is the extremely rural atmosphere of Woldingham station. The houses around the station are more noticeable because of their size than their number. Put simply, Woldingham is a very desirable location for those who want to live in a well-to-do Surrey village but need to commute to London.

Woldingham

Woldingham station looking south

After Woldingham the Oxted Line reaches Oxted itself by means of a tunnel under the North Downs. Oxted is a typical Surrey town, but it owes a lot of its vitality to the fact that it has quite a good rail service to Croydon and London. Oxted is the busiest station on the line, marginally busier than East Grinstead, but as a town one really needs to take into account that Hurst Green is effectively a suburb of Oxted – so it can be truly said that Oxted is by far the most important town on the line. There is a bay platform at Oxted for trains terminating form the south but during the week this is only used by couple of trains in the evening peak. On Sundays the hourly Uckfield service terminates here.

Hurst Green

Hurst Green looking north

Fast from Oxted to East Croydon

South Croydon - Oxted

South Croydon – Oxted

It can probably be appreciated that, once the service from Oxted gets up to a certain frequency, it makes sense to run some trains non-stop from Oxted to East Croydon. This is, in fact, what happens. Things are generally kept very simple with East Grinstead trains (up to 4 per hour in the peak and 2 per hour off-peak) serving intermediate stations, and Uckfield trains and the solitary train starting from Oxted (up to 2 per hour) running fast from Oxted to East Croydon. The choice is probably determined by a combination of the desire to provide the intermediate stations with 3-4 trains per hour in the peaks, the preference of having electric trains, with their superior acceleration, being the ones assigned to stopping trains and the desire to keep the long journey time from Uckfield (typically an hour to East Croydon) and subsequent stations on the line as short as possible.

The stopping trains from Oxted to East Croydon take around 21 minutes, but that can increase to 25 minutes if a call is made at South Croydon as well. The slightly erratic figures in the morning peak suggest pathing issues also exist. Non-stop trains typically take 13 minutes, which suggests that each station stop adds two minutes. With an eight minute difference it is relatively easy to fit in a fast train just before a stopper at Oxted as it will not have caught up the previous stopping train. This would also suggest that up to four fast and four stopping trains could be run each hour from Oxted to East Croydon providing the paths could be found through East Croydon and beyond, but more than that could be challenging as there are no obvious places for passing loops.

Trying to run fast trains on a two-track railway that has intermediate stations is an age old problem. In London in particular, with ever more passengers travelling from the suburbs, it is a problem that is getting worse. It is easy to see why. It would only take an extra 15 seconds dwell time at Sanderstead, Riddlesdown, Upper Warlingham and Woldingham for yet another minute to be added to the additional time needed for the stopping trains.

It should be noted that if the BML2 proposal to run trains via the disused line through Selsdon and onto the Hayes Line were to be implemented then the problem of capacity between Oxted and north of Sanderstead would not appear easy to solve. Of course one could suggest reducing the number of stopping trains but it is unlikely that would go down well. There are other workarounds such as “skip-stopping” – where the suburban stations are served by different trains that stop at just just one or two of them – but these workarounds are never entirely satisfactory.

The East Grinstead Line

Oxted - East Grinstead

Oxted – East Grinstead

Beyond Hurst Green the East Grinstead service serves only three stations.

Lingfield would not be a busy station by London standards and its annual total of users (less than half a million) includes peaks that arrive on race days.

Dormans has a name suggestive of its general usage. With annual usage hovering at 100,000 journeys it is certainly appropriate. It is clearly not the driving force behind the line’s high usage.

East Grinstead by comparison is by far the busiest station of the three, as one might expect from a station in a major town which, surprisingly, is in West Sussex. Numbers have grown (ORR statistics) from 1 million a year ten years ago to 1.5 million in 2015. Whilst this might partially be explained by the arrival of the Bluebell Railway (which reached East Grinstead in March 2013) the steady rise suggest this is more to do with the growth of East Grinstead and the surrounding areas as people are priced out of London and look for somewhere within a reasonable commuting time with a fairly decent train service.

Bluebell Railway

An unusual feature of East Grinstead station is the physical link to the Bluebell Railway. It is a cumbersome procedure to transfer trains from one line to another and, with completion of the excavation of a cutting during the Bluebell’s reconstruction, is little used. The original plan was to have charter trains from London direct to the Bluebell Railway but the operation of a few of them made the Bluebell Railway very aware of the problems that ports have when an ocean cruise liner calls – you have a lot of people descending on you, which means you have to have plenty of staff about, but your visitors come and go very quickly meaning they don’t actually spend much money. To add insult to the injury the income per person received from the charter train is a fraction of the normal fare and special arrangements involving extra staff have to be made available just to run the extra train on the line. Nevertheless the link is extremely useful for the Bluebell railway when hiring in track maintenance equipment such as tamping trains.

East Grinstead Branch goes from strength to strength

Whilst interest focuses on the Uckfield Line, the East Grinstead service and its development over the past 30 years has gone largely unnoticed. For many years the line had a poor Cinderella service of 3-car or 6-car DEMUs (“Thumpers”) supplemented by a loco-hauled service to and from London Bridge in the peaks. Electrification in 1987 saw longer platforms and 8-car trains and the end of the operationally-inconvenient loco hauled service. More recently platforms have been extended to 12-car length and the power supply has been upgraded.

At East Grinstead the single lead points needed to be moved due to the platform extensions and, slightly surprisingly, were replaced by a full scissors crossover which means that, in the right circumstances, trains can simultaneously arrive and depart at East Grinstead. Given that generally only three trains a day actually depart from platform 1 this seems like a certain amount of overkill, founded either on paranoia concerning single lead junctions or expectation of more trains in future.

The rise in usage on the line appears to be continuing unabated and from this December timetable another 8-car train will be extended – this time to 10 cars. By December 2018 the line should have a half-hourly peak-period Thameslink service but there is some doubt as to whether these will be 12-car trains – or at least whether they will all be 12-car trains. Ironically, the need to extend the platform to 12-car trains was originally for Thameslink, though this was subsequently brought forward due to rising demand.

Thameslink will produce a further anomaly on the line with the Thameslink trains being Driver Only Operated. Currently East Grinstead trains have a guard. Whilst the requirement for a guard fits in with the policy of having guards beyond the London metro area, it does seem unnecessary when the service is comparable in time with that to Tattenham Corner – it is only 4 minutes longer from East Croydon to East Grinstead off-peak than to Tattenham Corner.

The Uckfield service

Because the line to Uckfield has been discussed so much, much of what is written has been mentioned before. It is probably worth restating the main points though, even if it means a little bit of repetition.

Oxted - Uckfield

Oxted – Uckfield

  • The line from Hurst Green Junction to Uckfield is unelectrified. The distance from Hurst Green Junction (where the third rail runs out) to Uckfield is around 25 miles, whereas Hurst Green Junction to London Bridge is less than 21½ miles. So if one were to think of electrification then one cannot regard it as a simple infill scheme.
  • The service is currently run by Class 171 2-car and 4-car units. Some services are run with two units coupled together, which is not ideal as there is no interconnection between the units. The trains are refuelled and maintained at Selhurst depot.
  • Much of the line from Hever to Uckfield has been singled.
  • The peak-period service is 2 trains per hour. Off-peak Mondays to Saturdays it goes down to one train per hour. On Sundays an hourly shuttle service, requiring two trains, operates between Oxted and Uckfield – except for the first two trains out which start in service from East Croydon and the last one in, which continues in service to East Croydon.
  • There are eight stations south of Hurst Green to Uckfield (inclusive). Of these only three have a significant number of passengers. They are Edenbridge Town, Crowborough and Uckfield itself.
  • Even Uckfield itself only manages around half a million passenger journeys a year – a figure that would be considered really low by London standards. To put this in comparison, only Roding Valley and Chigwell on the Underground are less busy than Uckfield. Having said that it is only fair to point out that the passenger numbers for Uckfield have been rising consistently and rapidly.
  • Fares are around 20% lower than comparable other lines. This reflected the poor service with indifferent rolling stock at the start of privatisation. Fare increases from then on have been strictly regulated by an RPI formula, while improvements in services, generally, have not been taken into account.
  • The line is incredibly rural. Edenbridge is a small town but manages to have two stations on different lines. Hever, Cowden, Ashurst and Eridge (aka Tunbridge Wells Parkway) are in the middle of nowhere. The station euphemistically called Crowborough is actually at Jarvis Brook, right at the edge of the built up area referred to as Crowborough itself. In a similar way the station at Buxted manages to be at the very edge of the village (population 3,343 in 2011). If it wasn’t for town of Uckfield itself (population over 15,000) the line would have probably been closed a long time ago.
  • Although the line is thought of as a line through Sussex, Edenbridge, Hever, Cowden and Ashurst are all actually in Kent. Because of the closeness of the county boundary and Tunbridge Wells, Eridge probably also has many passengers from Kent who may have the alternative available of using Southeastern Trains.
  • All trains on the Uckfield route have a driver and a guard. This means that even operating a two-car train at marginal cost would be quite expensive and is probably one reason why the service is only one train an hour except at peak times.

Why is the Uckfield Line well used?

The above description of the rural nature of the line would tend to suggest that the Uckfield Line is a complete basket case and should have been put out of its misery years ago. The question then has to be asked as to why the line has a reputation of being so busy. There seems to be three main reasons.

  • The Uckfield Line it is not really that busy south of Hurst Green. Numbers are boosted by users from Hurst Green and Oxted especially as the Uckfield trains run non-stop betweeen Oxted and East Croydon.
  • The line has an incredibly large catchment area. Most people arrive by car and travel a considerable distance to get to the station. The line goes through a large area of Kent and rural Sussex that would otherwise be not rail served.
  • The lower fares and the likelihood of getting a seat (or possibly a space in the car park or on surrounding roads) means that a lot of people who would otherwise use the Southeastern service from Tunbridge Wells or alternative Southern services choose to use this line instead.

The last reason can of course work both ways, and an improvement in either service or car park space elsewhere may lead to a reduction in usage on the Uckfield Line. Alternatively, if services don’t increase capacity elsewhere and numbers using the railway keep on rising, the usage of the Uckfield Line may well outstrip anything that happens on surrounding lines. No Network Rail document appears to acknowledge this factor and all their planning appears to be done on the basis of steady standard rate growth based on current figures. There do appear to be good arguments for suggesting that the increase in use of the Uckfield Line will outstrip increase in use of the railway in general.

Proposals for the Uckfield Line

We will ignore the specifics of the BML2 proposal but will briefly cover the issue of extending southwards as far as Lewes, which is part of that proposal but has also been suggested as a standalone scheme.

Hurst Green Junction

Hurst Green Junction where Uckfield trains turn off to the left (east)

The oft-repeated suggestions are as follows:

  • Lengthen the trains
  • Remove or at least reduce the length of single track sections
  • Increase the line speed
  • Electrify using third rail system
  • Electrify using 25kV overhead system
  • Reinstate line to back to Lewes

Clearly these cannot be considered in isolation. For example if one were to extend and electrify that may well strengthen the argument for third rail electrification, as it would allow the existing (and future) Southern fleet to use the line as a diversionary route. This would add to flexibility and eliminate two locations where there is a need to change from one type of electrical supply to another. If you increase line speed then single track sections can be traversed quicker and there may be less need to double the track where it is single. There is also the issue that if you electrify (especially on the overhead system) it is better to do this after any track changes. We will go through these suggestions.

Lengthen the trains

There is a good argument against lengthening the trains on the Uckfield branch. The branch south of Hurst Green doesn’t really need it and demand at Hurst Green and north thereof would be better served by electric trains to and from East Grinstead. In any case, diesel units are currently at a premium. Furthermore, you can’t lengthen the trains unless you also lengthen the platforms so it is a big job – all for just 2tph in the peak period.

One problem eminently visible from the heady heights of LR Towers is also that the East Grinstead trains are already being extended to their maximum length, so any more increase on that line will soon have to come through more trains. The problem is that at the moment there simply aren’t the train paths available through East Croydon and northwards from there and, if there were, there would probably be better uses for them anyway. So, given the current shortage of train paths, the argument in favour of longer trains on the Uckfield Line is that one can increase capacity without requiring extra train paths. It does mean that the carriages will be lightly loaded for much of their journey in both directions though.

At least with this issue the argument is over, and longer trains will come in the near future. Network Rail has already embarked on substantial lengthening of platforms with details of the work at each station on its website. Being a lightly used branch – not often the case when you need to extend the platforms – the task is made easier by being able to close the line outside peak hours and put on replacement bus services instead. Further information – including the usual stuff about dormice and newts as well as information on the extra carriages – is on the Southern Railway website.

At the end of this work all of the platforms will be able to accommodate a 10-car train consisting of 23 metre long carriages – so only slightly shorter than a normal Southern 12-car train with 20 metre carriages. It is intended that the longer trains will be introduced in July 2016.

Some of the class 170 diesel units (12 cars in all) are already at Selhurst depot being converted into class 171 Southern units. This involves obvious things like repainting, as well as less obvious things like installing compatible couplers and undoing the damage done by the Scottish salty sea air. The solution of using converted class 170s and the existing class 171s formed as a number of 4-car and 2-car units will not be ideal, as a 10-car train will mean three coupled non-interconnecting units running together.

Remove or at least reduce the length of single track sections

Reinstating double track has been suggested for the line to Uckfield. It would increase reliability but be very expensive and would again be extremely difficult to justify for a peak service of 2tph. If it were otherwise possible to increase the service then there may be a case for this. Even with double track throughout, the ability to combine fast and slow services would be severely limited. You could put passing loops at Eridge which has four platforms. Currently only two are used – one for the Uckfield service and one for the Spa Valley Railway.

Alternatively, if you were only running a more intensive service in the peaks and more intensive in one direction you could, with modern signalling, have fast trains overtaking stopping trains on a two track railway.

Increase line speed

The disadvantages of doing this are similar to reinstating doubled track. The line speed is already around 75mph and the higher you go the harder it gets for a smaller reduction in time. Indeed increasing the maximum line speed has been described as “the Jeremy Clarkson approach to rail improvement”. Given the lack of non-stopping trains it would appear to be very hard to make a case for this. If there were non-stop trains the situation may be different, but then the faster the fast trains run, the quicker they catch up with the stopping trains.

Electrify using the third rail system

This is often mentioned. Electrification with third rail pickup stock would have a number of advantages. It would allow more fleet flexibility and ensures consistent performance throughout the network which then either enhances capacity or aids reliability. It would make life easier at Selhurst depot and free up diesel units for elsewhere. It would also reduce the rather unsatisfactory situation of the Mayor of London trying to clean up the city streets from traffic pollution but having diesel-fume-emitting trains at various London termini.

Nevertheless electrification would be expensive and (yes, you guessed it) normally would not be justified on a line that gets only one train an hour in each direction most of the time. If it were electrification for electrification’s sake then there are probably other lines that could produce a better case (e.g. infill between Reigate and Wokingham on the North Downs Line) and these logically ought to be tackled first. There is also a big question mark about continuing with any expansion of the third rail system, given the obvious danger to rail workers.

Less of a consideration nowadays, but seriously considered a few years ago, was the possibility of the Brighton Main Line from East Croydon to Preston Park (just north of Brighton) being converted to the 25kV AC overhead system. As this would have been a follow on from the “Electric Spine” conversion proposal for the railway between Southampton and Basingstoke, and as that shows no sign of happening, this issue seems less important. Nevertheless it does raise doubt as to whether more 3rd rail electrification is wise, given question marks over its long term future.

Electrify using 25kV overhead system

This is often suggested as a better alternative to the third rail system – and with dual-voltage stock it is not technically that difficult to mix with third rail electrification anyway. There is generally a desire to minimise the number of changeover points and avoid dual voltage track as much as possible. Overhead electrification generally offers superior performance and would remove the 90mph ultimate limit that is generally applied to the third rail pick-up system.

The disadvantage of electrifying on the overhead system to Uckfield is that you lose some flexibility as you would have to allocate specific stock to the line. It would save many expensive electrical substations though and be more electrically efficient, albeit at the price of having to install a suitable changeover facility – or two if extending the line to Lewes.

Reinstate line to back to Lewes

The final suggestion we are going to cover is that of reinstating the line back to Lewes.

Technically this is the original line that comes into Lewes from the west rather than the line closed in 1969, which more usefully approached Lewes from the east, but which has now been built on.

There are basically two campaigns to reinstate this line. One is the Wealden Campaign, which morphed into BML2. The other is that of Railfuture, which has been simply campaigning for the link to be reinstated though they do have suggestions as to how a direct (in the sense of not having to change trains) service to Brighton could be provided. Railfuture also currently have a bigger campaign called Thameslink 2 which could incorporate a reopened link between Uckfield and Lewes, but the reopened link is not fundamental to that scheme.

In the latest revised map from BML2 the emphasis is very much on going south from Uckfield towards Falmer by means of a tunnel under the South Downs. Lewes, once the primary objective, and the county town of East Sussex, is now shown as being accessed from a short spur off “BML2”. BML2 in this scenario would appear to have at least 4 but probably 6tph (from Brighton, Seaford and Eastbourne) running through the rural East Sussex, Kent and Surrey countryside whilst missing out on the travel demand centres of Gatwick and East Croydon.

Here it is worth stating something rather bluntly. In 2008 a report by Network Rail but commissioned by East Sussex County Council poured cold water on the idea of extending from Uckfield to Lewes. The resulting board report summarises the situation well. The extra traffic would be minimal (and next to none of it to and from London) so the Benefit-Cost Ratio (BCR) is not good. It would also have cost around £140 million at presumed 2008 prices for around 10 miles of very basic track. It is probably worth bearing in mind that in recent years Network Rail has not been noted for overestimating cost.

The publication of the report was a disappointment. There were almost immediately complaints that other benefits had not been factored in and unreasonable assumptions were made. Indeed the report itself states:

(point to note: the terms of reference assumed that there would be no extra capacity provided at East Croydon, no electrification north of Uckfield, and no dualling of single track sections)

This almost immediately led to the accusation that the bigger picture had not been looked at, but in fact all the assumptions made are very double-edged. If there is extra capacity at East Croydon wouldn’t more be achieved for less simply by running extra trains to Lewes and beyond via the current route? If the existing line is already electrified then electrification has, realistically, to be factored into reopening costs. It is hard to see why existing track would be dualled without a need to run more trains, but conversely if reopening Uckfield – Lewes led to a need for more dualled track shouldn’t that be included in the cost of reopening?

At London Reconnections we are going to pour some additional cold water on discussing these plans by arguing that, for the most part, they have very little relevance to London.

It is generally accepted that extending the line would make virtually no difference to London users who would continue to travel to and from Lewes using the faster route via Plumpton. Running some limited stop services on the Uckfield Line from Lewes, whilst not impossible, would be a bit problematic and it is hard to see from where they would pick up sufficient passengers to justify their existence – and, more importantly, deprive another well-established passenger flow of sufficient trains to cater for a known demand.

A few figures from the National Rail Journey Planner illustrate the point about journey times. Currently Uckfield to East Croydon takes about an hour in the morning peak. That is already longer than a journey on the existing route from Lewes to East Croydon via Plumpton, which is generally done in under the hour. Uckfield station is also around 12 miles by road to Haywards Heath station, where one can catch a train to East Croydon. From there journey time is around half an hour.

The idea of extending the line, often forgotten, is to enable more people from mid-Sussex to be able to work at the employment centres on the coast – Brighton in particular. Here the expanding town of Uckfield is seen as being of major importance and the desire is to provide an opportunity to work within the county (taking Brighton as part of Sussex) rather than just be a distant dormitory town for London. Unless a good case can be made for a BML2 style proposal, it is on this basis that any future decision on re-opening the line would sensibly be made. The situation may well have changed since 2008 or the sentiment in East Sussex and local investment plans may well mean that there is a case above and beyond Network Rail’s justification for not reinstating, but in London we have to concede that on the current evidence this is a local issue and of very little relevance to us.

It has been argued, principally by BML2, that the line, if extended back to Lewes, would make a good diversionary route. Network Rail rejects this notion arguing that it is too much of a long way round. It is unlikely that it could carry anything more than a small portion of the traffic if the Brighton Main Line were to be blocked. Even to provide a diversionary route for a portion of the traffic whilst maintaining local services would mean high capacity signalling. Additional substations would also need to be installed for almost the entire route between Brighton and South Croydon via Uckfield – not just the bit between Hurst Green and Lewes. This would cost a hefty sum and need to be maintained for use on only the few days in the year when a portion of Brighton Line passengers are generally affected by closure.

And the reason for reopening is …

With campaigners for a reopening of the line back to Lewes unable to agree on either its future purpose or a common rationale for their separate proposals, it is hardly surprising that that the line to Uckfield and possibly on to Lewes attracts a variety of views as to what the priorities should be and what enhancements should be made to the line. This is not helped, it seems, by the impression given that it is not universally recognised that the line is attracting a disproportionate number of passengers – whom, it must be said, may disappear if services improve elsewhere.

At LR Towers we do not claim to have the answers. We will say that there does always seem a particular romantic attraction to re-opening closed railway lines. Perhaps it is the nearest the human spirit can get to a feeling of being able to turn back the clock to imagined better days. This is not to say that old lines should never be reopened – London Overground shows that this can be done with considerable success – simply that there should be a clear justification for it, and you’ll struggle to find a column for “ineffable yearning” on the average cost/benefit spreadsheet calculator.

In this particular instance, we have already stated that any justification for reopening is likely to be found by looking south to Brighton and the South Coast, not north to London. We tend to agree that, as it is, the BML2 is correct that it would be hard to make a case for re-opening on a local basis. The trouble is they appeared to be looking for a scheme to justify it and that is very unlikely to work.

We will be bold and make a prediction. If Uckfield – Lewes does get reopened it will be because someone is looking to do something completely different from anything being publicly proposed now – and it will be because when they have modelled all the other options they have realised, as a last resort, that the solution to an outstanding issue is to combine utilising the line from Hurst Green to Uckfield more effectively together with a re-opened link to Lewes.

Whatever our opinions and predictions, given that the line for Uckfield to Lewes is safeguarded, we expect the arguments about reopening will continue for many years yet.

Written by Pedantic of Purley