Lewes-Uckfield Rail Link
6:15 pm

Photo of Mr Tony McNulty

Mr Tony McNulty (Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Transport; Harrow East, Labour)

I do not dispute that, but electrification would be necessary to optimise the use of the route as a diversionary line if there were problems on the Brighton main line. I know that the SRA tends to opt for the all-singing, all-dancing, bells and whistles version and that is why the county council should continue to consider the proposal, but a diesel-only service would weaken the case for the route to play a diversionary role. The strategic benefits advanced by the line's proponents seem to ignore the single-track nature of large sections of the line and the need for that to be addressed if the line were to play a full diversionary role in all circumstances.

I am also aware of the historic issues of flooding along the River Ouse and the impact that that had on the line prior to its closure in the 1970s. The costs and potential environmental impacts of satisfying track doubling, electrification and drainage should not be underestimated. I remind the House of the duty to avoid unnecessary blight and concern about how those potential issues would be delivered. I do not preclude examining the proposal further, but I offer those issues for consideration. Even if all those problems were solved, the line would be limited by the proposal by the Wealden line group that trains should run into Lewes via the Hamsey loop—that is, heading east at Lewes. The station layout there would constrain through running to Brighton and involve a shunt move to gain the Brighton line.

Another argument, which was put forward eloquently by the hon. Gentleman, is the potential to develop the port of Newhaven, so that the Lewes to Uckfield line would be part of a route to and from the port. That proposal can be considered as part of the SRA's regional study, which will look at all ports along the south coast.

The SRA's view is that the new rolling stock and other improvements that it will propose in the route utilisation strategy will provide a much enhanced service from both Lewes and Uckfield without the significant costs of providing infrastructure. For that reason, the SRA has not included the Lewes to Uckfield line in its strategic plan nor has it been part of the SRA's current thinking.

The SRA has said that it needs to be convinced of the operational viability and the overall justification for the scheme and would expect the scheme's proponents to engage with the key rail industry players—the SRA, the train operating companies and Network Rail—to make the case for further work to develop a feasibility study. A lot of work needs to be done to establish the costs, potential usage and value for money of reinstating the link.

As the hon. Gentleman said, such studies, or tentative studies, have been done in the past and there has been a body of support for restoring the line since 1969. As ever—I am sure that if he intervened he would make the same point—if nothing has been done, studies need to be looked at again in the context of the circumstances that prevail five or 10 years after the last study. The matter perhaps needs to be looked at in more detail.

Given the issues relating to the likely capital costs of the scheme and the likely ongoing subsidy requirement—although I take the point about what the county council is trying to do—the SRA has concluded that further investigation of the reopening of this route is not a priority for it at the present time. However, I accept what the hon. Gentleman says about finding other innovative ways to fill some of the smaller gaps.

Another scheme that has had its backers over the years is the restoration of the Bridge (Birchden Junction) to Tunbridge Wells (Grove Junction) link. It would provide another link in the network, but the SRA and others suggest that it would be of limited value on its own. I shall not rehearse the limited local value that the SRA currently puts on the scheme in terms of its being local rather than strategic. That is its view.

To sum up, the SRA is continuing to develop its plan to improve the existing network and services through its route development strategies and the consultation on the Brighton main line RUS will begin soon. In the longer term, there will be an opportunity for input into the SRA's regional planning assessment, which will begin this winter, and I am sure that Charles Hendry will make a full contribution to that process and the various transport strategies and other documents that are being published.

I recognise that I have not offered the hon. Gentleman much succour, but I exhort him, the hon. Member for Wealden and others to keep working with the county council—certainly on the ongoing subsidy and revenue cost side and perhaps also on the capital side. I am keenly aware that over the past 30 or 40 years our mindset and vision on rail has been on the multi-billion all-singing, all-dancing high-speed links that are going to change the world rather than more local innovative ways in which gaps in our network can be filled. Such schemes, whether for reasons of social exclusion, economic reasons or simply reasons of accessibility or interconnectivity, can solve problems far more readily than some of the big schemes.

While I exhort all south coast colleagues to keep on the case, I can offer no substantive sunny uplands in the next weeks and months, but I will watch the "Fill the gap" or "Close the link" campaign or whatever else it is called with real interest. I exhort the hon. Gentleman to carry on with colleagues, the SRA, the TOCs and the county council. I congratulate him again on the way in which he presented the case for what is clearly a significant local issue.

I congratulate the Lewes to Uckfield link on surviving Beeching, but clearly, given the substantial support for it now, perhaps this is one thing from the 1960s that will return. There is not much that I would say should return from the 1960s, having lived through it as a child rather than a teenager, but perhaps the Lewes to Uckfield link will. If it does, I will happily be there to help cut the ribbon, as the hon. Gentleman offered, but until then he should keep up the pressure to secure the link.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Six o'clock.

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