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Railwatch 077 - October 1998

Mend the gap

Plans to reopen the Lewes to Uckfield line in Sussex look like coming to fruition after years of work by the Wealden Line Campaign.

"This scheme has really taken off," said Brian Hart, director of the campaign.

If the Government can find the way to unlock finance of £25 million, it would provide a valuable Sussex Coast-Thames Gateway rail link through the "true blue Tory heartland".

For that money the line could be reopened along with another four miles from Eridge to Tunbridge Wells and the whole route electrified.

Compare that to the £29 million it would have cost to build just three miles of the Wilmington bypass which has now been abandoned.

"The rail plan is just so easy and so cheap by comparison," said Mr Hart.

The Liberal Democrat MP for Lewes Norman Baker commented in July: "The prospects are brighter now than at any other time since 1969.

"Reopening the line makes sense socially, environmentally and, crucially, economically."

In a Commons debate in July, Mr Baker said closing the line in 1969 was an act of stupidity and environmental vandalism.

He said: "The line was closed after more than 100 years of operation - not by the Beeching cuts, which destroyed so much of our rail network, but by East Sussex county council. The council wanted to put a new road bridge into Lewes and forced the line to close, effectively, to achieve this.

"The Lewes-Uckfield line can and should be reinstated.

"The Wealden Line Campaign has consistently put the case for the reopening and has helped to keep the issue in the local papers for years. I congratulate those involved on their diligence and commitment in that respect.

"A cursory glance at the map shows how illogical it is that there should be no railway between the two towns. A line straggles down from London to Uckfield, and then there is a seven-mile gap between there and Lewes, the latter a major rail junction with access to Brighton to the west, Newhaven and Seaford to the south and Eastbourne to the east.

"North of Uckfield, on the London line at Eridge, there is an even shorter network gap between there and Tunbridge Wells. At least the trackbed from Uckfield has been protected from Uckfield southwards, "although much is now in the private ownership of farmers and the like".

"Illustrative timetables have been produced to confirm the operational feasibility of a through line from Lewes to Tunbridge Wells, connecting with the London line at Eridge, and integrating with Connex South East services at Tunbridge Wells, and Connex South Central services at Eridge and at Lewes. These are based on a 30-minute frequency service, with a journey time from Lewes to Tunbridge Wells of around 50 minutes."

"Provisional assessments suggest that it will be possible for the route to cover its operating costs but not necessarily the capital costs of reinstatement.

"The reinstatement would provide an important alternative line to London from Brighton and Lewes. There is a bottleneck on the current network north of Haywards Heath, so there are no more paths for trains despite the considerable potential for increased passenger numbers to London, and for freight to Newhaven.

"The line would provide a real alternative for those who currently pour into Lewes, or indeed Tunbridge Wells, every morning on the A26, as well as being a speedy means of reaching key towns such as Brighton for those without access to the private car.

"Uckfield, stranded at the end of the present line, is, I understand, the fastest-growing town in East Sussex.

"For some years, we have had the ludicrous situation of a huge roads programme being funded directly by the taxpayer while railways have been told that they have to fund their own improvements, with a requirement that they show an 8% rate of return - which is ridiculously high - when no such barrier has been applied to roads.

"Any sane assessment of the A26 transport corridor north of Lewes will conclude that rail investment makes much more sense than spending more money on roads, as is the case in many areas.

"Too often in the past, the county council and the Government of the day were prepared to improve marginally an existing road facility rather than creating a brand new rail facility for the same money. We must not make such mistakes again.

"If the Government is looking for a relatively cheap rail project to demonstrate their new transport priorities, which I support, to symbolise what can be achieved by rail investment and to show that the reopening of rail lines has a part to play in the future, I can think of no better example."

Transport Minister Glenda Jackson said: "It is clear that there is cross-party unity on the necessity for a properly integrated transport strategy.

"There is strong support for the reinstatement of a rail link between the Hurst Green-Uckfield line and Lewes, not only from the MPs for Lewes and Wealden but from those who live and work in the area.

"The franchising director has powers under the Railways Act 1993 to grant experimental status to new passenger services where they are operated over lines not previously served by passenger trains, and to new or reinstated stations.

"It is open to the rail industry, the local authority or third party sponsors to propose investment in reinstatement of the Lewes-Uckfield line.

"I assure the House that the strategy and commitments that the Government announced in the White Paper "A New Deal for Transport" will serve generally to benefit rail passengers and facilitate worthwhile investment in new schemes, through partnership between Government, regional and local authorities and private sector operators and sponsors.

"Where there are genuine local needs, the local authorities - and the service providers - have the avenues to seek to address them. We want the railway to play its part in shifting traffic from roads to rail."

The Wealden Line Campaign can be contacted at PO Box 645, Uckfield TN22 5BZ. Tel: 01825 765076.

n Rail Property Ltd has prompted protests by putting Uckfield station on the market for redevelopment just as the reopening looks likely. The successor to the BR Property Board is proposing to push the rail corridor to an inconvenient position on the site.

Note: contact details (postal and email addresses, along with telephone numbers) in old editions of Railwatch out of date. Click CONTACT US for latest contact details.

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