Rail woes at Haywards Heath - and the final solution
- Published: Tuesday, 11 February 2014 22:48
Haywards Heath railway station will be busier than normal this week. A landslip at Oxted has reduced trains between Uckfield and London, so commuters from the East Sussex town will be bussed to Haywards Heath every half hour.
The Wealden Line Campaign has highlighted prospective misery for commuters on the Brighton Main Line when the new Siemens ThamesLink trains are introduced in 2016. Whilst the trains will be able to take more passengers, it is at the expense of seating. The trains are also incapable of splitting, which happens to some trains at Haywards Heath for south coast destinations.
As if getting a seat during peak times from Haywards Heath to London wasn't bad enough – and Network Rail says it does not like passengers standing for more than 20 minutes on their journey - the new trains are only a temporary sticking plaster on a line that is pretty much at capacity and would not be able to cope with an expanded Gatwick Airport which is currently the only Heathrow alternative being considered by the Airports Commission which will make its final recommendation in 2015. It will also not provide a rail solution for when sections of the line are closed for maintenance or emergency repairs – an all too frequent occurrence, particularly at Balcombe tunnel.
In 2010 the Uckfield-based campaign group put forward the proposal for a second Brighton Main Line (BML2) which would address many transport capacity issues in London and the South East that would achieve their primary aim of restoring the rail link between Uckfield and Lewes which was severed in 1969 by East Sussex County Council.
If BML2 were implemented in full, it would provide a number of benefits to Haywards Heath.
The Sussex phase would provide another train path from Brighton, Eastbourne and other south coast towns to London via Uckfield which would relieve capacity at stations on the Brighton Main line including Haywards Heath, Burgess Hill, Three Bridges and Gatwick Airport. It would also provide an alternative rail route via Lewes for commuters on the Brighton Main Line when it is down further north – no more hanging around for an insufficient bus replacement service. The cost of the Sussex phase is estimated at £350million or £650million if the Government insists on adding in all the standard contingency costs which are now being reduced for the controversial HS2 project in order for it to maintain credibility.
The London phase is more exciting as it would open up a direct route to Canary Wharf, Stratford and Stansted for both Brighton Main Line trains and those on BML2. East London is described by London Mayor Boris Johnson as the economic growth area of the capital and is no doubt of interest to Haywards Heathens who commute to the capital.
The BML2 project has been gaining rail industry, public, media and cross-party political interest and support. Brighton & Hove City Council have included it in their transport policy and has the full support of Labour's Lord Bassam of Brighton and Conservative Brighton MP Simon Kirby. It also has the support in principle of Brighton Green MP Caroline Lucas, whilst former Labour Transport Secretary Lord Adonis described the proposal as "stark staring obvious". It also has the support of numerous councillors of all main political colours in East Sussex.
However, there is the strange case of Lewes Liberal Democrat MP and former Rail Minister Norman Baker who is vehemently opposed to the BML2 project because it involves a short tunnel underneath a corner of his constituency which does not directly benefit his constituents. He maintains that Uckfield to Lewes can be re-instated on the business case of serving Seaford rather than Brighton, although numerous studies have consistently said such a case is insufficient – the last of which was in 2008 and led to Wealden Line Campaign Director Brian Hart conceiving the idea of BML2. Baker describes the project as very costly and controversial, particularly the proposed £50million tunnel under the South Downs, although as Rail Minister he was happy to sign off dozens of miles of tunnelling work to mitigate environmental concerns in constituencies on the HS2 route. He has also been caught backing Croydon campaigners against BML2 because they would lose their allotments and proceeded to spread disinformation about the project and its origins.
Baker himself is no stranger to strangeness after writing The Strange Death of David Kelly and surprisingly moved to the Home Office after this criticism of the Police and intelligence services. As home office minister, he recently said that there would be no blanket allowance for pubs to stay open late for the forthcoming England World Cup Game that starts at 11pm as it is "not of national importance" - and was immediately told by Prime Minister David Cameron to reconsider.
Network Rail is currently investigating how re-instating Uckfield to Lewes can relieve capacity between London and the South coast which is due to be published in the coming months. However, it is unclear as to whether it will look at the BML2 proposal in full, and, as Brian Hart has said, if they don't then they needn't have bothered and will have failed millions of commuters in London and the South East.