- Category: BML2 Project
- Published: Wednesday, 28 June 2017 16:06
Increasing the number of train services and providing large amounts of additional capacity into London from the south is a thorny conundrum. A few days ago a staunch champion of BML2, Lewes MP Maria Caulfield, was returned to Parliament with a substantially-increased majority and says she remains utterly determined to assist in securing the project for Sussex. Not so fortunate was Brighton Kemptown MP Simon Kirby who lost his seat to Labour candidate Lloyd Russell-Moyle who declared he is also a supporter of a second main line.
In the run-up to the General Election, Labour’s manifesto committed itself to ‘build a new Brighton Main Line for the south-east’ – although whether this specifically meant BML2 was not made clear. This was welcome news – if only that it demonstrated political parties had finally acknowledged the vexing predicament seriously affecting the region. It was also the first time the project had ever become an election pledge.
Industry journal Construction News contacted Labour, seeking clarification and informing readers: ‘– the most likely solution is the Brighton Main Line 2 proposal, which has been in development for the past few years. With passenger numbers only expected to increase, the need for solutions to the overcrowding on the Brighton Main Line will grow over this government and the next. And whether under a Labour or Conservative government, through public or private money, built partially or completely, the construction of a new multi-billion-pound rail line in the South-east could be a likely solution.’
Labour’s undertaking apparently came as a bolt out of the blue. ‘Shock as Labour manifesto backs BML2 scheme’ wrote Walter Cronxite, political editor at Inside Croydon, who declared BML2 ‘would need to bulldoze through homes and businesses, parkland and even the much-admired tram network.’ In fact, most of this was simply alarmist and wholly untrue. Furthermore, over the last nine months the BML2 scheme has been radically transformed with private sector partners now heavily involved in developing a truly beneficial project, not only for Croydon, but right across the South East.
Because all railways within South East London are notoriously jam-packed, back in 2010 we had no alternative but to propose rebuilding the former railway between Selsdon to Lewisham as the only means possible of channelling more trains into London. Admittedly there were substantial engineering obstacles to overcome to revive this once fully-functioning electrified line which was closed in stages between 1983 and 1994, but there was nothing else on the table. However, all that changed last year and, given its massive cost and far-reaching scope, we now have a serious and valid project, which could only have been envisaged and proposed by those with the means in the private sector.
As Rail Professional reported in March, the consortium proposes building a new tunnelled link into London, commencing south of Croydon and enabling all feeder lines access. In fact, this was Network Rail’s ‘ultimate capacity generator’ to which it longingly aspired some years ago, but knew it could never afford, or persuade the Government to fund. BML2’s tunnel would continue to East Croydon for interchange, before proceeding to Lewisham where further interchange with the forthcoming Bakerloo Line extension will be possible. The hugely successful commercial centre of Canary Wharf (Crossrail connections) is planned to be next, followed by Stratford (for Crossrail and HS1 connections). The fast new route would then continue to serve East Anglia and onwards to link up with Stansted airport.
Over the past few months numerous meetings between seriously interested investors, legal experts and developers have been going on behind the scenes. The BML2 Project Group has also met with engineers and construction companies who have approached us with a view to offering their expertise in developing and delivering the whole scheme. Confidence is such that detailed design work is on schedule and anticipated to commence later this summer. As we are always being reminded, it is an enormous project, whereby we have taken a back seat and allowed the professionals to get on with the task ahead. Nevertheless, we hope to bring news as matters progress on what is set to be a leading construction project wholly funded, designed and built by the private sector and with the backing of the Government.
Meanwhile – and quite aside from the continuing problems in Sussex on the Brighton Line – yet further evidence of the urgent need for BML2 continues to come with the publication of Network Rail’s latest Kent Route Study. It says: ‘The capacity for any additional services into London from Kent is extremely limited. Making the best use of the network to provide the maximum capacity possible per train path is critical to meet the growth projections going forward. When train lengthening opportunities have been exhausted there are no clear or simple options to provide additional capacity into London.’
It warns that projected growth on the Tonbridge main line simply cannot be accommodated with train lengthening alone, whilst even adding just one additional train would be challenging because of the congested two-track sections south of Orpington. Station capacity is also an insuperable obstacle with both termini at Cannon Street and Charing Cross ‘effectively full’. An old siding near Cannon Street is believed capable of squeezing in just one extra peak hour service, but that’s as good as it gets.
Blackfriars will be completely full with the Thameslink services operating high-density rolling stock which is capable of carrying more passengers provided they don’t object to standing. Farringdon is confidently predicted to become the UK’s busiest station – an operational challenge in itself, even with new digital signalling control, with a train in both directions every 150 seconds. As an industry insider famously commented ‘Fingers crossed all round I guess’.
Network Rail anticipates the highest passenger growth in Kent to be on the Tonbridge line. Among its primary concerns are ‘capacity issues’ at Tonbridge where conflicting train movements occur on converging lines; the two-track route between Tonbridge–Orpington, which has a mixture of fast/stopping services; and notably restricted platform availability and train length constraints at busy Tunbridge Wells.
Even today it is a difficult enough job attempting to operate a reliable service and we are aware how unpopular lowest-scoring train operator Southeastern remains among commuters. But the really grim news for Kent’s rail travellers is the revelation that to cater for this rising growth in the decades ahead, a total of no less than FIVE additional train paths via Tonbridge are needed. As Network Rail admits, these simply cannot be accommodated and comments – ‘Once the opportunities to lengthen existing services have been exhausted, there are no obvious or clear infrastructure solutions to meet the capacity conditional outputs.’
This is why BML2’s Kent Phase is of such critical importance because it would rebuild the former main line from London via Oxted into Tunbridge Wells (West). Unfettered by the unalterable short platforms and consequential conflicting movements at Tunbridge Wells station on the Hastings line, let alone busy Tonbridge, the opportunity to provide four additional trains per hour into London would be the biggest boost imaginable to the network and the region. Furthermore, since vast numbers of commuters already struggle with great difficulty and time-wasting frustration to reach Canary Wharf via congested London Bridge, this enduring daily obstacle would be removed. Described as ‘a pig of a journey’ by one borough luminary, BML2 would instead provide fast and direct trains between Kent and Canary Wharf.
Overall, and as with all such route studies, it seems to us that there is a glaring inability by these strategists to look beyond a regional or administrative boundary and consider the bigger picture. Because BML2 crosses these boundaries and links up counties and regions – as railways do – no consideration is given to the immense benefits it could deliver.
Of equal importance and apart from the commuter market, Network Rail’s latest study quite rightly points out: ‘The leisure market is important to the economy as well as to passengers’ and goes on to say ‘Improving accessibility to higher education establishments and social infrastructure such as health care and community facilities is important to the strategic goal of improving quality of life for communities and individuals.’
Regrettably the pressing and long-overdue need to reconstruct the important arterial routes connecting Kent with Sussex between Royal Tunbridge Wells and the City of Brighton & Hove is absent, despite the fact that the Universities of Sussex and Brighton are so near – yet so far.
As the United Kingdom stands on the threshold of a new era outside the EU and open to global markets, there has never been a better time for all concerned to come together – private investors, construction companies, the rail industry and politicians of all parties and get behind Brighton Main Line 2.