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December 2013: Rail is at last on the agenda!

Rail is at last on the agenda!

There has been a big turnaround this year, in attitudes if nothing else, on the back of sustained action by the South Coast’s stakeholder groups.

The long-awaited arrival of East Sussex County Council’s Rail Development Plan — pressing for electrification and dualling of Marshlink and Uckfield–Lewes lines — suggests more than a chink of light on the plight of the South Coast lines’ Cinderella status.

Led by strategists in the East Sussex Rail Alliance, and energetically advanced by Ray Chapman and colleagues, the concerns of South Coast communities have translated into the vision of a through corridor from Exeter to Ashford and HS1: The South Coast Main Line. There is now a very real prospect that its key module, The Marshlink upgrade, might actually get the funding it deserves to fulfil its potential.

Much has turned on the support of Parliamentary and County Members who have shifted from “Oh No, not that old chestnut...” to “We now see a do-able project which can be funded and bring big benefits to our travelling public as an economic driver to expand commercial development, tackle excessive unemployment, and reduce economic deprivation.”

All credit to Cllr Rupert Simmons, ESCC’s Cabinet Member for Economic Development, for driving a new realisation that railways really are economic re-generators. ESCC substantially endorses the South Coast Main Line concept, drawn from shelved SOCOMMS proposals by Halcrow in 2002. The SCML is also now matched to the funding aspirations of SELEP, whose transport funding arm has the Marshlink upgrade and Willingdon Chord re-instatement as its top priorities.

Network Rail is chipping away at the old block signalling system through the installation of new signals between St Leonards and Lewes, although commissioning has been postponed until April 2014 due to a lack of skilled signalling engineers nationally. Nevertheless the real need remains to upgrade the track itself and raise line speeds. Bexhill to Brighton — just 30 miles — takes an hour or longer.

24th December is the deadline for bids for the new Thameslink Southern Great Northern franchise, while 2015 sees the demise of Southern as an independent operator. Our hope rests with the determination of Tim Robinson, recently appointed MD of Network Rail’s Sussex Lines. While his biggest challenge remains the Brighton Main Line’s capacity and reliability — which impacts on all the Sussex coastal lines — he supports the logic of SCML.

Finally the arrival of a prestigious University College London engineering team to undertake a study of the route, and due to report on the development of fast and reliable services between Coast, Capital and Channel Tunnel next June, increases the momentum still further in the New Year. So we will have much more to tell.

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