New homes could break the Railways.
The surge of new housing developments in Sussex will overwhelm the County’s rail network, according to rail experts who say the London to Brighton mainline has reached saturation and simply cannot take any more passengers.
“In short, I don’t think it will cope,” says Peter Gibbons who has 30 years’ experience on the railways- working first as a Signals Manager and then as Incident Controller for Network Rail. “I’d say it’s at capacity.”
[quote style=”boxed” float=”left”]It’s a completely unsustainable development from the transport perspective[/quote]Mr Gibbons lives in Hassocks, about seven miles from the green field site where Mayfield Market towns is proposing to build a 10,000 home new town. The company is planning to bus commuters up to eight miles to Burgess Hill and Wivelsfield Stations, from a purpose built park and ride at Hickstead. Mr Gibbons was horrified when he heard about the plan.
“It’s a completely unsustainable development from the transport perspective,” he says. “You have to remember that the Brighton mainline has only got four lines from London as far as Balcombe Tunnel, which is just South of Crawley. Beyond that it’s a two track railway going down to Brighton and I can see no way of actually widening that section of line. You’ve got a number of obstacles in your way which would have to be addressed because of the undulating way of the countryside.”
These ‘obstacles’ include four major tunnels and the Ouze Valley Viaduct near Balcombe, a listed architectural landmark built in 1841 and renovated in 1996 with grants from English Heritage. However this is just the start of the problem.
“The trains are as long as you can make them now,” says Mr Gibbons. “Most of them are 8 or 12 carriages in length. The platforms are already at that length and there is a limit as to what you can run on a relatively low voltage railway, which is 750 volts DC. And then you’ve got to think about what happens to the trains when they get to London… because Victoria is at capacity too.”
[quote style=”boxed” float=”left”]The Brighton line has reached saturation[/quote]Paul Prentice who is an editor at the Peterborough based Rail Magazine agrees: “The Brighton line has reached saturation,” he says. “Brighton is a popular place to live and London is a popular place to work… the line is full. I don’t think there is any real potential to run any more trains. Network Rail will tell you there are various things they can do to… more carriages, better signalling, that kind of thing, but there is only so much you can do.”
Due to loopholes in the new NPPF planning laws, Sussex is experiencing a surge in applications for new houses. Mid Sussex District Council has reported a 43% increase in ‘major’ applications between 2011 and 2012 and the trend looks set to continue.
Earlier this month, Brighton’s Green MP, Caroline Lucas raised the County’s transport problems in Parliament:
“The mainline from Brighton is in dire trouble,” she said, “it struggles and creaks through inadequate capacity. The Brighton-to-London commuters I meet almost every day are, without exception, frustrated and angry about the poor quality of the service that they pay through the nose to use.”
Shelley Atlas, who is Chair of the Brighton Line Commuters, has been using the line for many years. She says that the service just hasn’t been able to keep up with the huge increase in passenger numbers. “People are quite frustrated I think, but there’s not a lot they can do. There are so many trains running up to London, it’s impossible to include any more services,” and she says more housing in the area is only going to make matters worse. “That’s obviously going to add to the problem because a lot of people want to work up in London or already do- even if they buy houses down here. It is going to make a major difference, because people want to go where the money is.”
One solution to the problem which is rapidly gaining support is BML2 (Brighton Mainline 2), which involves the re-opening of the old Wealden Line running to the East, through Uckfield. The line was downgraded in the 1960s and then turned to single track to save money in the 1990s, but much of the infrastructure is still there. The line would take a purpose built tunnel through the Downs to Uckfield and then join existing or re-instated lines to the East End of London, through Crowborough, Edenbridge and Oxted. Campaigners say that, once the line was electrified, the journey would be almost as quick as the existing mainline and would offer Brighton commuters another option.
“A much cheaper and better alternative would be to have a second route- simply by bringing back what we used to have,” says BML2’s Project Manager, Brian Hart. “It would take you across London to Canary Wharf, which is where we think there is definitely a need for another route to connect up with Crossrail. We need more trains to London… It’s the same wherever you go in Sussex- we need a stronger, enhanced rail network.” He says the push for more new houses has only intensified the desperate need for the new railway.
“The Brighton line cannot take any more trains. It has the maximum number of trains running on the route. It beggars believe that they could even consider building more houses and towns down the Brighton Line without simultaneously putting money into transport.”