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Railway (Lewes-Uckfield)

12.30 pm

Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes): I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise the important question of the possible reopening of disused rail lines, and the Lewes-Uckfield line in particular. The debate comes at an opportune time, following as it does the publication of the Government's White Paper on transport.

The last time I secured an Adjournment debate was on the subject of Newhaven port. On that occasion, the Minister, the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson)--who I am pleased to see has not been shunted anywhere--confidently predicted that I would be pleased by the contents of the White Paper. I am happy to say that she was probably correct. At last, after so many years, the country is moving towards a sensible transport policy. As part of that, the train is at last emerging from the tunnel.

As an aside, I was particularly pleased to see that the Government have at last put a stop to the sale of so-called redundant rail land. During my last Adjournment debate, I raised that issue on the basis that if I did so often enough, I might get what I wanted. The Minister on that occasion called it a drip, drip approach. Buoyed by the success of that tactic in respect of redundant railway land, I am hoping that perseverance on my part can bring a similar result in respect of the Lewes-Uckfield railway line.

The line was closed in 1969 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 that. That was an act of stupidity and environmental vandalism. Although none of the officers or members involved are still connected with the council, I believe that that body has a moral responsibility to try to make amends and help to secure the reopening of the line. I am pleased to say that it is now doing so.

The Lewes-Uckfield line can and should be reinstated. That statement is born not of romanticism but of a hard-headed view that it makes economic, social and environmental sense. Almost as soon as it closed, a campaign was begun to secure the reopening of the line. The Wealden line campaign--as it is known--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. I should say that the evaluation for reinstatement which is taking place--and to which I shall refer in more detail later--is considering what is called the central rail corridor in total.

There are essentially three parts to the central rail corridor. The first section, from Tunbridge Wells to Eridge, is held by a preservation society, and the track

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bed and tracks are intact. The logistical problem of how to reconnect with the existing services at Tunbridge Wells has been solved by the consultants looking into the feasibility of reopening that stretch of the corridor.

The second section comprises the existing Eridge to Uckfield railway line, currently operated by Connex South Central. The third section is a seven-mile gap south to Lewes. Here the track bed has been protected from Uckfield southwards, even through the new industrial estate, although much is now in the private ownership of farmers and the like.

One section near Isfield continues to operate as a preservation railway, now called the Lavender line. Because of the new road bridge into Lewes, a reinstatement on the original alignment would be hugely expensive--perhaps even impossible--but there are two other solutions which could be put in place at much less cost. One is to follow the route of the track bed down to Hamsey just north of Lewes and then to create a new short stretch eastward to join the existing Lewes-London line. The other, more expensive, option is to create a new stretch westwards from the track bed to provide a new station at Ringmer, a fast-growing village in my constituency, and then to join the Lewes-Eastbourne line near Glynde. I happen to think that the first option is the more practicable.

In the past two or three years, there has been a renewed momentum from the local authority sector in particular to push for the reinstatement of the link. The county council, not long after killing the line, adopted a structure plan policy that is still in place today, protecting the track bed from development so as not to prejudice possible reinstatement. That has been mirrored by the Wealden district and Lewes district local plans.

In 1996, the county council commissioned a feasibility study into what it calls the East Sussex rail corridor which considered not just the Lewes-Uckfield line but another short stretch from Eridge to Tunbridge Wells. The Minister may recall that I presented her with a copy of the report when she was kind enough to meet me last year. The report, by Mott MacDonald, concluded that it was perfectly feasible to reopen the two closed lines and ended:

Since then, the county council and other local authorities--with some financial support from Connex South Central--have commissioned further work on a business case. That work is due to be finished shortly and will be discussed with Connex and Railtrack. I would like to present a copy to the Minister as soon as possible, if I may.

Let there be no doubt that the matter is being treated seriously. The draft report confirms that there are no engineering and operating problems that cannot be overcome. 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.

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Financially, the business case has been developed using a local demand model based on travel times and costs for cars and public transport using the corridor. The results from that model have been validated by comparison with independent forecasts produced using Opraf's own regional planning tool, called Planet.

Provisional assessments suggest that it will be possible for the route to cover its operating costs but not necessarily the capital costs of reinstatement. That, in effect, is the same conclusion as the one reached by Network SouthEast in 1986. It is worth mentioning that, in 1986, the then director of Network SouthEast, Chris Green, ordered a serious review of the case for reopening, and inspected the disused line personally in February 1987. British Rail at the time indicated that it was minded to allocate £1.5 million towards the estimated cost of £6 million, but no other sources of funding were forthcoming at that time.

There has been interest from the rail operators for a long time, and it is worth drawing to the Minister's attention the fact that even in the Beeching days, British Rail recognised the value of the line. When the road bridge idea was first mooted, British Rail went so far as to secure parliamentary approval in the 1965-66 Session for a new route into Lewes--the same route used between 1858 and 1868--which would have kept the link open.

In the event, the permission was allowed to lapse.I am sure that the right hon. Member for Wealden(Sir G. Johnson Smith), who is here today--and who represents the Uckfield end of the line--will remember that point, as he was in the House at the time.

Why do we want the line reinstated? It would make considerable sense from an integrated network point of view as it would link existing rail infrastructure at relatively little cost by means of new short stretches. That would improve the viability and profitability of the lines to which it connected, as journeys previously impossible suddenly became viable propositions. For example, many who drive from Uckfield to Brighton might now take the train, thereby improving the use of the existing Lewes-Brighton line. Two members of my staff live in Uckfield and commute each day by car. They would prefer to use the rail line. There are many in that situation.

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 movement to Newhaven.

Connex South Central tells me that its figures show an increase in passenger numbers of about 12 per cent. over the past year, but the numbers cannot be pushed up further without an alternative route, because of the lack of train paths. Congestion has become so bad that Connex has to join trains at Haywards Heath to maximise use of the paths, leading to delays. Furthermore, if there is a problem on the London line, the nearest alternative routes north are via Hastings or Littlehampton: a very long way in either case.

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

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means of reaching key towns such as Brighton for those without access to the private car. A third of people do not have access to private cars, and their needs must be considered.

The White Paper commits the Government to working to get people out of cars and on to public transport. Here, in my view, is an example of how that might be achieved. Uckfield, stranded at the end of the present line, is, I understand, the fastest-growing town in East Sussex, and there is no question in my mind but that there is considerable potential custom for a reopened line. I hope that the right hon. Member for Wealden will be able to speak about that.

The line would provide rail access for communities currently not served by rail, such as Barcombe in my constituency, again helping to take cars off the road. By providing an alternative means of accessing Lewes, where many come to work in the public sector, the line would also help to protect from further damage by the motor car what is accepted as one of the top 50 heritage towns in the country.

I was pleased that the Minister said that the Government were prepared to invest public money, where necessary, in rail capital projects. In a parliamentary answer to me, she wrote:

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 per cent. rate of return--which is ridiculously high--when no such barrier has been applied to roads.

The Government have said that they want to consider transport corridors, and it is absolutely right to take that view. 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.

A few years ago, the county council spent £1.5 million--probably borrowed from, or with the permission of, the Government--on straightening a couple of bends on the A26 north of Lewes. A similar amount pledged at that time would have matched the investment that Network SouthEast was prepared to put in, and might have been the catalyst for reopening the line. 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.

Might the Lewes-Uckfield line, and indeed the central rail corridor project as a whole, qualify for capital investment from public funds, under the terms of the parliamentary answer that I quoted? I appreciate that the Minister has not yet seen the business case, and I will be happy to give that to her as soon as it is ready, but I would like an in-principle answer.

The line has considerable public support. I have with me a petition carrying 3,400 signatures, presented to me by George Yerby of Friends of the Earth, which I will hand to the Minister after this debate, if I may. I know that she is familiar with the project, and I hope that she

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will agree that the time has come to forge again the link between Lewes and Uckfield. If the Government are 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.

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