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Railways: Brighton to London Line

Volume 730: debated on Thursday 6 October 2011

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will safeguard Uckfield station and the rail track of the former Uckfield to Lewes route for possible future use to provide additional capacity to the main Brighton to London line.

My Lords, there are no current plans to issue safeguarding directions. However, the former Uckfield to Lewes route is safeguarded by both Wealden and Lewes district councils in their local plans.

My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister for that Answer. Is he aware that East Sussex County Council has plans to build a road across the formation outside Uckfield which would, of course, completely prevent the line being reopened? Furthermore, is he aware that British Rail Property Board, which, as the House will know, is being abolished, is trying to sell off all its surplus land, which includes the land of the old Uckfield station, which, again, is essential to the reopening of this line? Will he instruct the property board not to do that and to keep this and other similar pieces of land for future reopening?

My Lords, the noble Lord raised two points, the first of which is the road. One of the benefits of the proposed scheme is that it allows for the building of a bridge at a later stage should that be necessary. In fact, the scheme makes it easier to open the line, should that be necessary, because to the west of the proposed road crossing is a level crossing, which would be unacceptable if you wanted to open the railway.

The noble Lord asked about the BRPB and whether we would give it directions. No, we will not. It is not necessary. We are absolutely confident that nothing has been done that will compromise the ability to open the railway at some point in the future, should it be desirable to do so.

Will the Minister widen his consideration just beyond this line. There are a number of noble Lords who have in their areas of interest railway lines that could be reopened with advantage in the future. Surely the land concerned should be vested in Network Rail, which in July last year pronounced the Uckfield to Lewes line of strategic importance. There are many other such lines, of which one example is Oxford to Cambridge. This has been made almost impossible to open between Bedford and Cambridge because of building.

My Lords, it is important to ensure that disused railway lines could be reinstated if it was necessary. The difficulty with my right honourable friend the Secretary of State issuing safeguarding directions is that he can do so only if it is intended to reopen the railway line, not to make it possible. In addition, if he does give safeguarding directions, it can result in compensation to developers.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that his words “at some point in the future” are not very consoling to south-east commuters, of whom I am one, who regularly have to stand on overcrowded trains at certain times of the day?

My Lords, the noble Baroness makes an extremely important point. We all know that at peak periods, the commuter railway lines south of London are all running at peak capacity. One difficulty is that we cannot easily increase the capacity to the main line terminals. In the case of Uckfield to Lewes, one of the bottlenecks is East Croydon, so even if we increased capacity in that area on the south of the line, you would still encounter the bottleneck at East Croydon, and there is very little we can do about that.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that many people believe that the Beeching cuts represented an act of terrible vandalism in the previous century? There are local campaigns to bring back many small railway lines up and down the country that have fallen into disuse because of Beeching. Can the Government at least say that they will encourage local initiatives to help us restore those railway lines? They have environmental benefits and tourist benefits. If the Government were to say that that is their policy, many of us would be very grateful.

My Lords, it is great that there are local initiatives to reopen lines—to make my department think carefully about that—but there has to be a good business case.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that Gatwick Airport is a very popular destination for those travelling between London and Brighton? The number of passengers has increased. Secondly, does not the maximum use of the line between Victoria and Brighton demonstrate the need to preserve an alternative method, especially when this expansion of the Brighton line is exhausted?

My Lords, I fully accept that the Brighton line is running at capacity, but this particular scheme will do nothing to relieve the bottleneck. For instance, the path between Sevenoaks and Orpington is just twin track and there are no more train paths available at the peak period.

Nearly all line reopenings that have taken place have proved successful and have more than met projected passenger figures. Can the Minister say whether other lines are being considered for reopening? In particular, what is the current position with the reopening of the Skipton to Colne route and the safeguarding of that route?

My Lords, the Skipton to Colne route is a little far from Uckfield and Lewes. I can point to the dualling of the Swindon to Kemble line, which is very expensive but will bring many benefits. I see the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition nodding her head enthusiastically.

My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister for the answers that he has given to various colleagues on my original Question. Lewes-Uckfield is in Network Rail’s route utilisation strategy, which was published last year, so a lot of people in Network Rail must think that there is demand there.

The Minister said that if the Secretary of State was asked to give some assurance or make some designation on certain routes, the developers might try to claim compensation. Given the time that it takes to develop any of these new railway lines—noble Lords have given different examples—surely there is a case for looking at the policy again so that routes can be safeguarded even for 10 or 20 years. It may take that time to get a new project off the ground.