Brighton desperately needs a new rail link – but which one?

A photo of Brighton station.

A photo of Brighton station.
“BrightonStation4681” by Clem Rutter

The Argus recently ran a story about the ‘luxury’ future of Brighton’s mainline. In a rare PR win for the operator Govia Thameslink, the piece described how the line would benefit from bigger and better trains with more seats and more services over the next three years.

But for those of us who have endured years of overcrowded trains and delayed or cancelled services, this sounds like too little, too late.

The situation is so bad that one service from Brighton to London Victoria was delayed on every single one of its 240 journeys in 2014. Services either side of this were only on time on 1-2% of their journeys.

This is disgraceful. As an erstwhile commuter, I have witnessed first hand the misery and frustration caused when trains arrive late or are cancelled time after time. Even when services are on time, the lack of space means that many commuters often have to stand for the whole gruelling 1hr15mins journey to London.

The problem is simple – demand is high, and having too many trains on the track means that the slightest delay can snowball into serious disruption for passengers. So what should be done about this?

There are several proposals, which I will try to sketch out without going into too much detail (and believe me, there is a lot of detail for those who want it).

One option for easing congestion on the Brighton Mainline is to build a Brighton Mainline 2

One option for easing congestion on the Brighton Mainline is to build a ‘Brighton Mainline 2’. Image courtesy of BML2 project

The first and probably most widely supported option is to build a Brighton Mainline 2 (BML2). As shown in the diagram on the right, this would involve another line going past the Brighton and Sussex University campuses, tunnelling under the downs by Lewes and then passing on through Uckfield – providing extra capacity and an alternative route if Brighton Mainline is obstructed.

There have been suggestions that this line could continue on through Canary Wharf, giving Brighton commuters better access to this part of East London.

Those who back the BML2 scheme have proposed a new ‘Croydon Gateway’ station that would allow London-bound trains to bypass the current bottleneck at East Croydon station.

Here’s where it gets complicated. Another faction, Railfuture, is campaigning instead for the second line to go through Lewes. This would involve trains from Brighton coming into Lewes and then either reversing back out of the town to continue up to London or taking a tight loop round the town to facilitate their journey into the capital.

The MP for Lewes, Norman Baker, has put his support behind this plan and has long campaigned against BML2’s tunnel option. He previously told the Argus that the tunnel bypassing Lewes would be “very, very expensive” and “very controversial”.

However, any Brighton to London route going through Lewes would come with serious problems – as the Wealden Line campaign (a supporter of BML2) argues, Lewes station is not large enough to handle the stopping and reversing of a large number of Brighton-London trains, and all of Railfuture’s other options would involve the unsightly laying of new track across our South Downs National Park as well as bottlenecks at Lewes.

Canary Wharf in London

Canary Wharf in London, a possible destination for BML2 trains in future. Photo © copyright Rachel Bowles

A third option, touted by rail engineering consultants WSP, is to concentrate on upgrading the existing Brighton Mainline. Ian Brooker, WSP’s Head of Rail Planning, said: “The alternatives to a total route upgrade are not attractive. BML2 does not provide the capacity to busy commuter towns in Sussex, doesn’t serve Gatwick Airport, and doesn’t serve the vital hub at East Croydon – one of the UK’s busiest stations.”

Where does all this leave us? The average commuter from Brighton will surely be throwing her arms up in despair by now, and reminding us that all this back-and-forth isn’t getting her to work any quicker. Instead of endlessly talking about building a new line, why doesn’t someone just get on and do it?

It’s worth stopping here for a second and asking: what would it look like if we were to do nothing at all?

Brighton station’s unofficial Twitter account recently suggested that better rail links to London could have the effect of increasing the already sky-high property prices in Brighton. This may well be true, as it would make the city even more attractive to commuters (the solution, of course, is to build more affordable housing).

But what about the positive effects of greater connectivity between the two cities? Firstly, a lot of the money earned by Brightonians commuting into London will be spent back here, boosting the local economy. Secondly, making it easier for Londoners and others in the South East to commute into Brighton will bring added skills and labour force to our city by the sea. Thirdly, Brighton businesses will benefit from quicker and more reliable access to a potentially massive pool of clients in London and the wider region.

There is a clear need for urgent action to be taken to relieve congestion and reduce overcrowding on trains out of Brighton. It is therefore in the best interests of the city – and of the region – for all parties to stop squabbling and throw their weight behind a single plan. Putting up a united front is the only chance we have to save our commuters from more nightmare journeys, and to unleash the true growth potential of our economy.

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