A Study in Sussex Part 1: An Overview and a Rather Curious Announcement

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Sussex may not at first glance appear to be part of our self-imposed London-related-only remit but an awful lot of railway activity that goes on in Sussex does relate to London. We are thus going to try something bit different at London Reconnections and have a series of articles about rail services to Sussex. Despite looking at the subject from a London perspective this still gives us an awful lot of scope. Do not expect large coverage of local Sussex issues however.

A large part of what we shall be looking at will be the Brighton Main Line (BML) and we shall concentrate on future expected demand and capacity issues. Because one has to look at the issue of getting trains from Sussex to London as a whole, an awful lot of the investigation will actually be looking at issues in the south London. In any case Network Rail’s definition of its Sussex area extends well beyond the county itself and even includes East Croydon. The terminating lines out of London Bridge are often referred to as the Sussex Lines.

One of the reasons for looking at Sussex is that an awful lot of the relevant topics would have been covered by us anyway – some of which are long overdue in having an article on them. Having a theme means that instead of a haphazard disorganised choice of topics we can approach them in a methodical way and look at the interrelationship between them.

Another reason is that there is a lot of rail-related planning going on in relation to Sussex rail services. We are now in Network Rail’s control period 5. At the start of one control period Network Rail is finalising details of its spending in the next Control Period. In this case this would be Control Period 6 which starts in 2019 when the Thameslink Programme will be complete. So, for starters, any schemes that are effectively Thameslink Key Output 3 will begin to surface now.

This will also give a good opportunity to look at how Thameslink will be implemented on completion now that the management contract (in lieu of franchise) has been awarded and the details of future planned services are known.

Thameslink Routes

Final arrangement for Thameslink routes from December 2018. A PDF version of this is available here.

As we all know, rail travel has been rising dramatically throughout the London commuting area. Some of that, such as the hugely expected increase along what still gets to be referred as the M4 corridor, has been predicted and much has been done to provide for it. In contrast, the South East and especially Sussex journeys have seen a sharp rise that really wasn’t predicted. This means there are a lot of new proposals for capacity improvement schemes being developed.

Say goodbye to the Sussex Route Utilisation Study

Long term readers may well remember our report on the London & South East Route Utilisation Study and in particular our look at the Brighton Line. The Network Rail report for this line at the time seemed incredibly defeatist and didn’t really offer any solution other than an idea for a tunnel starting south of Purley and continuing to London. It was clear that this was not going to happen in the next two decades. Since then there has been a remarkable change in attitude and Network Rail are now planning for a 50% increase in capacity from all services that call or pass through Gatwick to London by 2025 and are confident they can deliver. This doesn’t mean that all problems are solved though and there is still a lot of discussion as to what services need to be provided in future.

Background to the Proposals

Before we can even begin to look at details of railway schemes it really would be appropriate to look at the Political and economic geography of Sussex first. Only then can we get some idea of what service one could expect Network Rail to facilitate. In very general terms we look at the preferred strategies of the relevant county authorities – West Sussex, Brighton Unitary Authority and East Sussex. For quite legitimate reasons their strategic aims are quite different. We also need to see not only where there is an obvious demand but also where there currently isn’t any service, but where creating one may do a lot to develop deprived areas. And whilst Sussex in general is not an impoverished county this does not mean there are not deprived pockets within it.

Within the look on the economic geography of Sussex it might be a good idea to look at fares in the area and the effect they have on determining which route people use – or whether they travel by rail at all.

Alternatives to the Brighton Main Line

Following on from looking at the economic geography of the area it might make sense to look first at the proposal to extend HS1 domestic services to Sussex. This has become a very hot topic recently. Arguably one of the best ways of relieving the Brighton Main Line is to provide a route that does not use it. We might also take a brief look at the route from Horsham – Dorking and the difficulties in using that route as a viable alternative.

Down the Brighton Line

Capacity Restraints

Diagram from Brighton Main Line interim report showing capacity constraints as perceived by Network Rail

The real meat of the series will be the Brighton Main Line. We will start at the London end with a look at capacity issues at Victoria and London Bridge. We will then travel down both London branches of the line.

From Victoria we will take a look at Battersea Park. This could be argued not to really qualify for inclusion as the station is only served local metro services but it seems a good opportunity to look at this station anyway. That said, one must remember that the area around Battersea Power Station may well become a major destination in its own right in the future.

After that a look at Clapham Junction is an absolute must as this is one of the most critical capacity pinch points on the entire line. Clapham Junction is also where northbound trains leave to go via Shepherd’s Bush to the West Coast Main Line but rather inconveniently they can only do that from the slow lines at Clapham Junction.

From London Bridge we will start by looking at Bermondsey Diveunder. This really is a prerequisite and will be brought into use in the next three years so is strictly irrelevant but we are overdue a look at this and it seems a good time to do it. Beyond that is New Cross Gate station which is currently undergoing major reconstruction under the Access for All programme. There is also the issue that the Brighton Main Line doesn’t really serve the Canary Wharf area that well. Few long distance trains call at New Cross Gate for onward travel using the East London Line. Such an interchange would provide journey opportunities but may not be of overall benefit. We might also briefly mention Norwood Junction.

The two separate London branches of the Brighton Main Line merge just north of East Croydon at Windmill Bridge Junction. This junction (and the ones nearby) are a huge constraint on capacity of the Brighton Main Line. If capacity cannot be increased here then it would be extremely hard to argue the case for any other capacity improvement with the possible exception of Clapham Junction.

South of Windmill Bridge Junction is East Croydon. There is an incredible amount to consider here. Driving this all is the redevelopment of the town and what effect this is likely to have on demand. Just looking at the impact of East Croydon footbridge (in use but still not fully commissioned) would be worthy of an article on its own. The proposed new island platform at East Croydon may also justify its own article – even if it is a short one.

South of East Croydon is South Croydon and immediately South of South Croydon Station is South Croydon Junction where the Oxted Lines leave the main line. This would probably be a good time to look at the unelectrified and partially single-track line to Uckfield and the long-standing proposal to restore the link between Uckfield and Lewes.

We swiftly pass through Purley which is of no real relevance to our discussion and encounter Stoats Nest Junction. Here the route diverges for a number of miles before joining up again. On one line is Redhill and this will be one of the very few places to see anything significant happen in the next five years (Network Rail’s Control Period 5). It is also where we see a diesel passenger service on the Brighton Main Line. This is the service from Reading to Gatwick.

The next call of interest is Gatwick Airport station. Very unusually, in terms of track and platform layout we report on the work that has been done, rather than what needs doing. At Gatwick there are all sorts of contentious issues relating to the differing needs of airline passengers and regular commuters. This would also be a good time to discuss the dedicated Airport Express service and the arguments for and against it. The Davis report on London’s Airport Capacity in the future will not make a decision for a number of years but it would be sensible and relevant to look at the arguments for expansion at Gatwick from a served by rail perspective and how much of an impact a second runway would make on passenger numbers.

South of Gatwick Airport is Three Bridges. This would initially appear to give relief to the BML as some trains turn off to go to Horsham and beyond. Unfortunately this relief does not last long and both the Balcombe Tunnel and the Ouse Viaduct enforce a two track restriction which is made worse by the need to provide a service to semi-rural stations along this section. Relief comes at Haywards Heath which is four track once more and has four platforms. The situation then manages to get worse again because trains can be split and joined at Haywards Heath so there are actually more trains to/from the south of the station than there are to/from the north.

Like Three Bridges, Keymer Junction, where a branch leads off to Lewes, would appear to make life simpler again but a flat junction located close to the Wivelsfield station is a further operating complication that Network Rail could do without. The line remains two track until reaching the outskirts of Brighton at Preston Park where there is a third track.

At Preston Park a train could potentially go to Brighton or along the coast westward from Brighton. This then raises further issues. If the train goes along the coast should it go into Brighton and reverse out or should it bypass this major town?

Outside Brighton we are nearly fifty miles from the capital and there are fundamental issues about trains to the capital need to be addressed. Should London have supremacy and all trains go straight there? Or should the prime concern be to bring passengers into Brighton and those who want to continue to London accept the longer journey? Of course the obvious answer is to provide both but the frequency of level crossings, amongst other things, prevents this being an option. As a result, a few level crossings on the South Coast are having a strong influence on the service provided from London.

In addition we probably should have an overall look at timings and whether these can and should be improved. There is also the issue of whether the Brighton Main Line should remain 3rd rail electrification or whether a start should be made on installing overhead catenary. There is the issue of diversionary routes and the impact of engineering work. As our lifestyle changes the issue of trying not to close the Brighton Main Line for engineering works (even at night) becomes more important.

How it all started

On Thursday 9th May 2013 a curious press announcement was issued by the DfT and headed

Lewes – Uckfield railway line to be reviewed by Network Rail

When you actually read the details of the announcement Mr McLoughlin, the Secretary of State for Transport is quoted as saying:

I am alive to local interest in re-opening this line and wider concerns about rail capacity between London and the south coast and this is why I have commissioned this study.

So as part of a much bigger study the issue of Lewes – Uckfield will be looked at – which is not exactly the news the headline is seeking to put across. Incidentally, it is interesting to see the reference to Lewes – Uckfield not Uckfield – Lewes as the former tends to be the way it is referred to by those seeing from the perspective of Lewes and the south coast – so you do wonder who drafted the headline for the press announcement.

Further down a quote from Richard Eccles, Network Rail director of network strategy and planning, seems to be almost on another subject entirely because he is quoted as saying:

The railway between London and Brighton is one of the busiest routes in the country and there is very little space available to run additional trains. As the number of passengers continues to grow, it is right that we look at a wide variety of options which may help provide extra capacity in future, ensuring that the rail network can continue to support and drive economic growth in the region.

Anyone for Call My Bluff?

At that stage, about a year ago it seemed as if we were in one enormous game of
Call My Bluff.

The challenge is to decide if this announcement was about

  • The government looking into re-opening of the Lewes – Uckfield line.
  • Network Rail looking into route capacity on the London – Brighton line.
  • The government asking to Network Rail to review it strategy for rail routes from the Sussex Coast.

Of course the analogy with Call My Bluff falls down a bit when you realise that there has to be a correct identifiable answer.

A Bit of Political Pressure?

The whole announcement seems a bit strange with a clear conflict between the parties as to what the priorities of the study should be, but it gets worse. Modern Railways reported in the following month that “The Secretary of State visited Lewes station on 9 May [2013], meeting local MP and transport minister Norman Baker to discuss rail provision in the constituency.” This almost has the feel of telling Network Rail both to investigate and what conclusions it must come to. Worryingly, in a situation horribly reminiscent of the controversy over the Wimbledon Loop, we have a decision-making process within the DfT that affects the constituency of one of the junior transport ministers yet there seems to be no attempt to avoid a conflict of interest – or if there is then there seems to be no effort made to ensure that it is publicly transparent.

Curiouser and Curiouser

The whole dysfunctionality of the announcement on 9th May 2013 would appear to be hard to top but a report by BBC Sussex on the following day manages it. It quotes Norman Baker as saying

It’s so important because the capacity between London and the south coast is pretty much at break-point.

We’ve got patch numbers rising relentlessly four or five percent every year, expected to double within 30 years and there’s no space for these passengers.

We need more capacity between London and the south coast and I happen to think that reopening the Lewes to Uckfield line is the way to get that capacity.

It is not at all clear what he means by patch numbers – perhaps the reporter misheard the oft-used railway term “pax,” an abbreviation for passengers – but it is clear that the sentiment is that passenger numbers are rising rapidly between London and the South Coast.

Nonsense on stilts

What is rather concerning is that anyone with a little bit of knowledge of basic railway issues should be able to see that whilst there may be good arguments for re-opening the railway from Lewes to Uckfield, it is very hard to see how on earth this would help solve capacity issues.

Previous studies have shown that reopening Lewes – Uckfield is not going to attract people in Lewes to travel to London via Uckfield unless given a major fare-incentive to do so, because the route via Plumpton and onto the Brighton Main Line is much quicker. Even if the Uckfield route did divert people off the main line they are going to meet up again at East Croydon which is a far bigger issue than anything to the south of it. Furthermore it is quite clear that a partially single-track railway that is not electrified and in fact has limiting line speed due to the state of the embankments is not going to provide a capacity solution without a lot of additional work. Even then one has the issue, that is almost impossible to overcome, of providing both a service to local stations and also running a fast service on a long stretch of line where the formation never exceeds double track.

Back to Sanity

Fortunately, a year on, we can now see that whatever political games were being played at the time the long term result was the entirely sensible review by Network Rail of its plans for rail routes to Sussex. This is something which one can be fairly confident Network Rail would have done anyway. Indeed, as if to emphasise the point, Richard Eccles in his original statement continued:

We are already reviewing the options for capacity enhancements to Brighton and the south coast corridor and this work will feed into a Sussex route study due for development in 2014.

which rather suggests that Network Rail was, in fact, already quietly getting on anyway with what the minister has made a big thing of him asking Network Rail to do.

He went on further to state:

Within this we will include a review of the value that a re-opened Lewes-Uckfield line could play in meeting future needs.

which sounds like a suitably non-committal statement put in to reassure any minister who wants to see Uckfield – Lewes on the agenda.

The government has already asked for an interim report which Network Rail has provided and the DfT have now published. Amongst the many interim recommendations, the report recommends continued safeguarding Uckfield-Lewes but no re-opening at present. The draft of the main report should be published in late 2014 for consultation with the aim of a final report being published in Summer 2015.

This first part article is an introduction of topics which will be discussed in more detail in subsequent articles. These topics are generally highlighted in bold. Please do not comment on something which could more appropriately be commented on later. To try to maintain some sense of order, comments which would be more appropriate in a later article are liable to be deleted. Please feel free to suggest any relevant topic that you feel has been overlooked. – The LR Team

Written by Pedantic of Purley