By Brian Hart
Rail's apparently unstoppable renaissance seems to have taken everyone, including the rail industry, by surprise. Demand continues to exceed capacity and at a faster rate than even imagined two years ago.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in London and the South East, which accounts for the bulk of rail travel in the UK, whilst Network Rail is struggling to keep up with the pace of expansion required.
South of the capital its primary 'rib and spine' route – the Brighton Main Line (BML) – is plagued with constraints for almost its entire length, whilst frustrated passengers feel the brakes going on as one after another amber signal up ahead is approached.
Gatwick doesn't help matters either; the airline operators just as frustrated by an imposed ceiling on capacity into London, whilst its customers have to battle for seats and space on the BML's increasingly overcrowded commuter trains.
Now, serious doubts are being raised over whether Croydon will even begin to cope with the relentless rise in demand as train operators struggle to keep the high level of existing services running.
Currently there is little good news on the horizon as, even with the promised (but as yet unordered) longer 12-car Thameslink trains in 2018, Network Rail itself admits to "lots of standing" from as far out as Haywards Heath into London, adding that the "East Croydon area represents a major barrier to further growth" in its strategy studies.
Kent commuters are just as hard-pressed, whilst their MPs and councils are now fighting TfL's proposals to take over the operation of rail services from Sevenoaks inwards on the equally-congested Tonbridge Main Line (TML) fearing their constituents will end up taking second place to London's suburban needs.
The fundamental problem is that the BML and the TML are in the same invidious position – both cited as 'major barriers to growth' by Network Rail with no additional track space and therefore no ability to run more trains. This is where Brighton Main Line 2 (BML2) comes in and is now finding new allies and powerful political proponents.
BML2 would transform today's degraded and under-used Uckfield line which used to be a proper main line connecting directly into Brighton, as well as going into Tunbridge Wells. It runs virtually parallel between the overloaded BML and TML routes and could ease the burden with its main line status restored.
Severed from the South Coast in 1969, it currently terminates at Uckfield in East Sussex and frustratingly within just a few miles of the coastal network. A new tunnel would be needed through the South Downs' chalk to access Brighton directly because the old route through Lewes town centre was irrevocably destroyed, but this is no economic or physical barrier with today's cost-effective and super-fast tunnelling technology.
Brighton & Hove City Council recently gave its wholehearted backing to BML2, as did the city's two Conservative MPs, Simon Kirby and Mike Weatherley, as well as Green MP Caroline Lucas. Labour's Lord Bassam of Brighton has been a strong and vociferous supporter of BML2 since its inception three years ago, whilst this month Lord Adonis, transport secretary in the last government and now in his new role as Labour's minister for infrastructure in the House of Lords, is championing it, saying its need is "stark staring obvious".
Network Rail remains apprehensively cautious though on friendly terms with BML2's proponents whom it has met and discussed its merits and the potential problems and implications. Its own scheme to try and overcome the seemingly insuperable Croydon bottleneck with a new 15-mile railway between Coulsdon in Surrey to Victoria entirely in a tunnel beneath South London appears desperate, especially when the investment needs to deliver the best possible financial return for taxpayers.
BML2 proposes a far easier solution which seems blindingly obvious. Its London Phase would similarly use currently derelict and under-utilised lines in South London in much the same way as London Overground has transformed closed lines around the capital.
The Selsdon – Lewisham rail corridor is immeasurably valuable in regional transport terms, not least because it can both avoid and relieve East Croydon in a similar manner to what happened at Redhill in 1900. The visionary Victorians usefully built a new line between Horley and Coulsdon as 'Redhill Junction' was such a blockade and today the BML couldn't function were it not for the 'Quarry Line'.
BML2 proposes providing a fast-line connection into London for all traffic not concerned with stopping or alighting at East Croydon. There are some obstacles to overcome, but certainly nothing to faze any competent civil engineer or financial backer. About a mile of Croydon Tramlink's New Addington branch, which occupies the former heavy rail tunnel, would have to be realigned but this could be to its advantage.
There will also be costs involved in quadrupling all or part of the railway between Elmers End and Ladywell to accommodate the Hayes branch services. However, there is not a surfeit of linear transport corridors in South London, whilst every foot of its available space should be used to its utmost benefit rather than being a dump for household rubbish from neighbouring gardens.
Former transport minister Theresa Villiers told BML2 the big challenge was to get from Lewisham into London Bridge, but this provided the eureka moment when a contact in London Overground pointed out that Canary Wharf was the destination for thousands of daily commuters who had to travel needlessly into London Bridge only to cause daily chaos on the Jubilee Line out to the Wharf.
With Crossrail well under way, the remaining pieces of the jigsaw began to fall into place. Continue BML2's northward direction across the eastern Thames from Lewisham and link to Canary Wharf and Stratford International boosting Crossrail's usefulness at the same time.
The cost would be significant, but the rewards immense. On commuter traffic alone the cost might be hard to justify, but add in the fact that this route would directly connect London's Gatwick and Stansted airports with one dedicated airport shuttle (termed 'Stanwick') passing right through the capital's financial heartland and immediately the business case takes off.
At the southern end near Selsdon there would be a need to connect the BML across to the route to Lewisham. Unfortunately the Victorians, though intending, never actually got around to building this section, but it's not too much of a challenge. Now though, a golden opportunity presents itself at this location, currently occupied by light industrial buildings and storage areas, to create a new transport hub called Croydon Gateway which could be purpose-built to better manage the interchange swamping East Croydon. The fast through lines, perhaps by dive-unders, would allow the fastest-possible seamless journeys from Gatwick to Canary Wharf and Stratford International for Crossrail, running onwards to Stansted and answering many of the vexatious problems around London's airport capacity.
A spin-off opportunity also arises to introduce a 'Thameslink 2' – connecting counties on both sides of the Thames divide and taking pressure off the Farringdon core in central London.
Finally we come to High Speed Two. With or without HS2, it is possible for BML2 to wash its face in terms of the huge economics benefits it will deliver to the South East Region and the capital's transport system and aspirations. However, rail professionals who are now suggesting that HS2 should start at Stratford International rather than Euston and join up with HS1 as one continuous high speed railway between Scotland, the North and Midlands and Paris/Brussels have provided even more food for thought.
With BML2 in that equation it means that towns and cities across a wide spectrum of the South would find themselves easily connected into the UK's emerging High Speed 'spine'. Rather than central London being a tangle of routes and restrictive termini laid down by Victorian entrepreneurs, it could have the 21st century cross-connections it deserves – and is going to need – as the relentless rise in rail usage continues.
Brian Hart is the author of numerous railway histories concentrating on the development of lines in Kent. He launched the Wealden Line Campaign in 1986 to partly stop the further decline of the Uckfield line and also promote its strategic potential. Following the failure of Network Rail's 2008 study into reopening a basic rail link between Uckfield and Lewes, he developed the more ambitious Brighton Main Line 2 Project.
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