HL Deb 20 May 1974 vol 351 cc1301-12

5.45 p.m.

LORD TEVIOT rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether, in view of the grave inconvenience caused by derailments at Balcombe to the many thousands of people who travel daily on the Brighton line, they will direct British Rail to provide some alternative route, for example by reinstating the line from Uckfield to Lewes. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name. In so doing I should like to thank those noble Lords who have been kind enough to stay behind to listen to this debate, and in particular the noble Lord who is to answer it. It is indeed pleasant to have an Unstarred Question called at such an early hour. I have asked this Question mainly because the derailments at Balcombe (or, rather, the stretch of line from Balcombe Tunnel south to Haywards Heath) have caused a great deal of anxiety to many people, as expressed in the Press and on local radio.

When this London to Brighton main line was opened in the 1840s to 1850s, no one besides a soothsayer could possibly have visualised that this line would become one of the busiest in the country. This is not a line which is likely to be closed because of loss of patronage, but one which has increased its passenger traffic annually and is likely to do so for many years to come because of envisaged expansion in the mid-Sussex and coastal areas. There have been no less than five derailments between Balcombe Tunnel and Haywards Heath, a distance of five miles only, since June, 1971, involving two passenger trains and three goods trains, which surely must be a record. Happily, there has been no loss of life. One does not want to be a harbinger of doom, but one should like to spread a tiny word of foreboding.

This line serves the busy commuter belt and caters for the busy tourist traffic and other people who use the line on day tickets to London from Sussex as far as Bexhill, Pevensey, Eastbourne and Seaford, to the East. The line also serves the large towns of Brighton and Hove, and all places to Worthing and Littlehampton along the coastal area, to the West, as well as large rural and urban areas situated inland, such as Haywards Heath and Lewes. There was a particularly had accident on September 16, 1972, when the line was closed for, I believe, about a fortnight; and there was a recent episode at the beginning of April, which accelerated my Question, when the line was again closed for three days. When this happens there is always an intolerable amount of inconvenience to passengers and there are no real possible alternatives. People in Brighton and Westwards have to travel to London via Littlehampton and the mid-Sussex line, adding one to one and a half hours to the journey; or, equally, there is a 'bus service which is implemented between Haywards Heath and Three Bridges, which again adds a great amount of time. It is true that this is not the only stretch of line on which troubles occur in the area, but it is the one which is most affected. For instance, there was a derailment this morning at Lewes. That was very annoying, but it inconvenienced only a proportion of the passengers.

At this point, my Lords, I must make it quite clear that I am not trying to blame anybody in particular, but to draw very strongly to the Government's attention, as I did in the case of the previous Administration, the fact that the present situation is extremely unsatisfactory. I am grateful to those who have been kind enough to assist me with facts and figures; namely, Mr. Paterson, the Central Division Manager of Southern Region, who is well known to the travelling public and who is always giving assistance and making untiring efforts to produce good will in dealing with passengers' problems with human understanding; and, also, the clerk's department of the East Sussex County Council for their excellent brief and the useful comments from the East Sussex Travellers' Association. This stretch of line is one of the most beautiful, and perhaps the only really rural stretch, of the London to Brighton line, as well as being the most hazardous.

While on the subject, I should like to ask the noble Lord whether he can give me an assurance as to the safety of the Ouse Valley Viaduct. This is an elegant structure which spans a wide area, and one dreads to think what would happen if an accident occurred. I suspect there could be even more fatalities than in the case of an air crash, as there are many trains comprising 12 coaches carrying over 1,000 people at one time. There are, and always have been, rumours about this viaduct and its safety. The current one is that British Railways wish to put out to tender for British firms, who refuse. One Dutch firm has agreed to do so, but the line will be closed for from six to eight weeks. If I am talking absolute nonsense, I should like the noble Lord to tell me so; but I think the travelling public now deserve to be told what alternative arrangements British Rail have in mind to deal with the situation if and when it occurs.

I now come to the other half of my Question, which is about the very strong case for opening the Uckfield to Lewes line. This was closed in 1969 principally, but not solely, because of the rebuilding of a bridge at Lewes. I in this House, and others in the other place, asked Questions at the time pointing out the dangers of so doing and the harm it would cause. What was said has proved correct. I have since studied most carefully the pros and cons about reopening this line. In fact, it has a very much better future even than it had earlier. The situation at the moment is that the East Sussex County Council will have to pay a large sum of money towards the reopening of this line and the reconstruction of the Hamsey Loop. I think that at one time the East Sussex County Council agreed to pay some money towards the resiting of Uckfield Station, but they have now decided not to do this. I agree that if that had happened the situation would have been different. But since it has not happened, I think there is a very good case for reopening the line.

At a meeting on January 30, 1974, there were 20 bodies represented, 19 of which agreed to the reopening of this line. The one dissenter was a small parish council which would have been affected where the route went through. Coupled with this, I understand that British Rail are going to electrify this line from Croydon to Uckfield, which is very long overdue, and this will add considerably to the passenger traffic and cut the running time. There is also a greatly increasing population in this area. Most of the people in this area commute to London, but there is likely to be some considerable additional traffic to Lewes and Brighton, as well as increased freight and passenger traffic to the coast from the Medway towns. I am saying all this to substantiate the case for opening this line, and stating very strongly that it could become a very viable alternative when anything goes wrong to the main line. I concede reluctantly, that the reopening of this line would not be justified if it were solely a stand-by railway; but this is not so. When the line was closed, it was carrying 1,000 passengers a day, and if reinstated in time it is likely to exceed that figure. Alternative bus services have not proved satisfactory.

Finally, my Lords, I hope the Government will give very serious consideration to this matter and realise there is a great future in our railway system—as I am sure they do. We, as a nation, should be rightly proud of it, especially around London. In America, for instance, things are very much worse: everything has been put towards the motor-car and railways have suffered, and the times and distances are very much greater. Therefore, very large capital sums would be justified if invested in a line that serves around 50,000 people annually, whether it is the alternative that I have suggested between Lewes and Uckfield, or perhaps the reopening of the Shoreham, Steyning, Henfield and Horsham line. This could in a way be more advantageous, because if it were electrified, as was planned before the last war, it would link up with an already electrified line at Christ's Hospital. Very briefly, I hope that I have given your Lordships food for thought.

5.55 p.m.


My Lords, in the absence of any other speaker, I should like to add my support to what the noble Lord has said. I cannot claim to be a commuter, or to have any very great personal usage of the line. But, on average, I go up and down to Brighton and Hove once or twice a month, and to Haywards Heath an equal number of times. I myself have been inconvenienced even on those brief occasions when I have used the line. It has always seemed to me to be so unreasonable that the alternative railway which used to exist between Three Bridges and Lewes has been removed. I suppose it has been one of the casualties of the Beeching Plan. I have also heard the same kind of rumours—I suppose one can describe them only in that way—about the viaduct to which the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, referred. It appears to me that this railway, which seems to carry more passengers than any other line in the whole country, deserves to have an alternative route more than any other other railway line. The traffic on the London-Brighton section of railway has indeed increased from year to year, despite the Jonahs who tell us that the railways are coming to an end. The service needs improvement; there is really no way of improving it without increasing the number of railway lines. It seems to me that this, in itself, is a good argument in favour of the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Teviot. In any case, the inconvenience that is likely to be caused if anything serious happens to that viaduct cannot be measured without a good deal of alarm and a great deal of despondency.

5.58 p.m.


My Lords, I cannot stay more than a minute to hear the noble Lord's reply, but I should like to put in a word for my noble friend's plea, because, among other things, the Balcombe Tunnel runs under the grounds of my wife's old home. This tunnel was heavily guarded during the first war and was regarded as one of the strategic links with the Army in France. The other great railway tunnel was, of course, the Sevenoaks Tunnel. August 5 found me an assistant auxiliary Boy Scout patrolling the Sevenoaks Tunnel, and the number of German spies and suspcious characters we found on that day is nobody's business. There is an additional point. Besides being a strategic tunnel, it is a strategic viaduct and it has been there a very long time. It might well have to be rebuilt, and that would be a very awkward proposition. In addition to the derailments—I heard the technical cause for them, but I have forgotten it—there have been a number of tragedies in the Balcombe Tunnel. Such cases put it out of action for quite a while. In addition, I believe it is haunted, but I do not believe that deters the drivers. My noble friend put in a particular plea for the Lewes-Uckfield Line. But I should have thought that, railway-wise, the proper link is the one he mentioned as an afterthought, which is the one round by Steyning, Henfield and Southwater. I say that because they are all places that are being heavily built-up, and there will be considerable commuter traffic joining up with the Horsham line.

6.0 p.m.


My Lords, before the noble Lord, Lord Garnsworthy, replies, I should like to say a word, because some 14 months ago I spoke on this subject in our debate on transportation and I am on record as having written a letter on March 22 to the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, on this subject of the Lewes/Uckfield line. I must put on record that, having heard my noble friend put his case very persuasively as he did before but in slightly more detail, I am still fairly happy that the letter which I wrote on behalf of the Department of the Environment at that time still basically holds good. There is the argument between the economic route and the strategic route and what might happen in certain eventualities. In this time of economic demand, when the country's resources are limited, there must be cases when, however unpleasant, one cannot necessarily do everything that is easy. This is one of those cases. However, I would say to my noble friend Lord Teviot—and I am sure that Lord Garnsworthy will bring every assistance he can bring to bear on this—that if the case is shown to be provable, that there is going to be a necessity for this alternative line, Lord Garnsworthy will do his best and the Transport Ministry in the Department of the Environment will also, I am sure, bring their pressure to bear.

Recently a noble friend of mine pointed out that in the last war this particular point was known to the Germans to be particularly vulnerable; if anything went wrong, it was likely to make things very unpleasant for us British in this part of the world. I suppose that what the enemy can do in war, accidents of fate and nature can do in peace. I think that this is the point which my noble friend Lord Teviot was trying to draw to the Government's attention, as he did to the last Government's. I know the problems that Lord Garnsworthy is facing, and sympathise with them. I am not totally convinced that my noble friend has made a case for changing the situation which is stronger than existed twelve months ago.


My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, I would point out that since he spoke previously there have been two further derailments.

6.2 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, has spoken with understandable feeling and from personal knowledge, and has been supported by my noble friend Lord Addison and by the noble Lord, Lord Hawke. I am beginning to have the feeling that when we talk of tunnels under houses and vulnerable viaducts we are at a point where somebody is going to get some material for writing a mystery story if the saga is continued indefinitely. But I am sure we fully appreciate the very good reasons why the noble Lord has raised this Question to-night. His Question has several ramifications. He suggested that British Rail should provide an alternative route for passengers on the Southern end of the main line from Brighton to London in the event of the line's being closed temporarily by, for example, a derailment. He suggested one way in which this might be done: by reinstating a former rail link between Lewes and Uckfield, presumably so that trains from Brighton could travel to London via Lewes, Uckfield, Oxted and East Croydon. But, as I hope to show, this suggestion gives rise to greater complications than may at first sight be apparent.

First of all, it might be helpful to explain what the usual emergency arrangements are if the London to Brighton line is obstructed, at some point on its Southern part, badly enough to warrant some arrangements being made. Here I have the feeling that it would be an advantage if all of us were looking at a map, but I am sure that noble Lords who are familiar with the geography of Sussex will follow me. The Railways Board can, and do, provide buses between Brighton and Uckfield, so that passengers can there join the existing diesel hauled service to Victoria. And trains are run from Brighton to London via Littlehampton and Horsham. I understand that this system works well, except that there are inevitably delays to passengers. Via Littlehampton, the journey is 83 miles, as compared with 50 miles direct from Brighton; and since the trains have to go into Littlehampton Station and reverse out again, it is somewhat time-consuming. I understand that the journey takes about an hour longer. One could hardly expect a diverted service over an alternative route to be as good as the normal service.

The noble Lord, Lord Teviot, is probably aware of the arrangements I have just detailed that British Rail have for running trains from Brighton via Littlehampton. His suggestion now, as I think it has been on previous occasions, is that the line from Uckfield to Lewes might be reinstated. As he knows, the passenger service on this line was withdrawn in May, 1969—indeed I think he mentioned that himself—following the usual form of inquiry. The then Minister of Transport decided that the withdrawal of this service would not cause sufficient hardship to justify its retention. Since then the track has been removed and much of the formation disposed of. As it is. I have to tell your Lordships that the line of the old formation has been breached by the Lewes inner relief road, and to restore that formation would now therefore involve considerable expense. At one time the Railways Board were considering an alternative route known as the Hamsey loop, which would have enabled trains to run from Uckfield into Lewes over the last part of the Haywards Heath/Lewes/Eastbourne line. The Parliamentary powers for this route lapsed at the end of 1972. But, in any case, it would not have enabled trains to work straight through from Brighton, as they could have done on the original formation. They would have had to reverse at Lewes.

To restore a rail link between Lewes and Uckfield, as the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, suggests, whatever the exact route, would be both difficult and expensive. It may be an advantage if I give to the House the figures that have been given to me. I am informed that the capital cost would be in the area of £2 million. Moreover, the Railways Board have estimated that in addition a revenue subsidy of about £170,000 a year would be required—this on the assumption that the existing service between London and Uckfield would be extended to Lewes. But it is also on the assumption that an electrified service should be run. Indeed, the noble Lord has himself contemplated this. Since the present line from Uckfield as far North as South Croydon is not electrified but served by diesel multiple unit stock, this in turn presupposes electrification of the latter line. Thus, the cost of reinstating the Lewes/Uckfield link would indeed be substantial.

While it is true that the route from Brighton to London via Lewes and Uckfield is about 63 miles, compared with the 83 I have mentioned via Littlehampton, one must remember—and indeed as the noble Lord himself knows well—there have in fact been five occasions over the past two years when incidents have occurred on the main line which have made it necessary to consider the need for running diversionary services over an alternative route. I am glad the noble Lord mentioned those five occasions. He made no attempt to exaggerate. We must bear in mind that it is five. I realise and appreciate fully that five times over a period of two years, if one happens to be the victim, is tantalising in the extreme.

On the last occasion, the derailment at Balcombe on April 5—a date to which the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, referred—British Rail found that it was necessary to use an alternative route only on that one day. I noticed that the noble Lord referred to its being closed for three days; my information is that it was closed for one. I shall have that point checked, and if I am in error I will certainly write to the noble Lord about it.


My Lords, if I may interrupt my noble friend on this point, it w as closed on the Friday. It was also closed on the Saturday and the Sunday, and buses were, I believe, running as an alternative on that date as well.


My Lords, I am not sure, having heard the noble Lord, that there is very much between us. I think that British Rail were substantially right in saying that there was need to use the alternative route on only that one day, but I will have that matter checked and write to the noble Lord.

On only one occasion out of the five which have been mentioned, when there was a derailment just North of Haywards Heath in December, 1972, is it felt that there was any serious disruption to the main line. On that occasion British Rail needed to use an alternative route for three days, although I have to say in all fairness that it was several more days after that before their normal rolling stock and work patterns were restored to order. That, unfortunately, is one of the penalties which has to be paid when running services over alternative routes on such occasions. With regard to what the noble Lord said about a derailment at Lewes this morning, may I say that I am in no position to make any comment this evening, nor do I think that the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, would expect me so to do. From his point of view, he probably feels that that adds one more reason why notice should be taken of the concern which he has expressed.

My Lords, I should perhaps make it clear that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has no power to direct the Railways Board to provide any specific service or route. That is a matter for the decision of the Board. If, in their judgment, the cost of making such a provision is not justified, then that is their responsibility. Since the route via Littlehampton already exists, it appears to me in this instance, simply from looking at the map, that it might be possible to achieve more cheaply some significant improvement for passengers like the noble Lord, who suffer from interruptions to the service on the main Brighton line, than by reinstating the Lewes-Uckfield line but building a loop North of Littlehampton to enable Brighton trains to run straight on to Horsham without having to go into Littlehampton itself. Perhaps it is something that somebody might have a look at.

However, since the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, has expressed a particular interest in the Lewes-Uckfield link, he may like to know—in fact, I am pretty sure that he does know from the way he spoke—that the East Sussex County Council have shown some interest in the possibility of reopening the line, and they have been in touch with the Department of the Environment about it. If they consider that the needs of the area justify the reinstatement of the line, then it is open to them to provide the necessary finance. I understand that British Rail would be prepared to undertake the necessary works and provide a service if the funds were forthcoming.

Under the new transport grants system which will be coming into force in April, 1975, it would be open to the county council to include the reinstatement of this line and a subsidy for a service if it seemed certain that that would be required in their comprehensive transport plans upon which the Government's block grant decisions would be taken. If those comprehensive plans and the implied expenditure were accepted for grant purposes, then the capital and revenue costs involved would attract a large measure of central Government financial assistance. But that, as your Lordships will know, is a question for the East Sussex County Council to decide, and I am plainly in no position this evening to say what their view might be. I would suggest—and I rather think that probably the noble Lord already has it in mind—that he might like to pursue this possibility with them.

The noble Lord asked me a question about the Ouse Valley Viaduct. I think I ought to say that the civil engineers are well aware of the viaduct, and I am sure that they examine it regularly. I appreciate the anxiety that he has expressed and I will write to the noble Lord upon it. I do not think I can usefully add any more this evening, but I ought to emphasise that the viaduct is regularly examined and that, so far as I am aware, there is no reason for anxiety. If there were, I am pretty certain that something would be done about it. However, the matter will be checked and the noble Lord informed.

With regard to the other alternative route—that is, the one via Shoreham and Henfield, I should mention that at the moment this is closed. I think the noble Lord, Lord Hawke, touched on this one as well. Again I should be grateful if the noble Lord would allow me to write to him about it. The noble Lord, Lord Mowbray, who, but for the fortunes of fate, might have been dealing with this Question this evening, referred to the letter which he wrote to the noble Lord, Lord Teviot. I think I am right in saying that he gave an indication that the London Rail Study might have a look at that. As I understand it, they are unlikely so to do, because it is a matter that would appear to be rather outside the area with which they are concerned—that is, the London area. I may not understand it too well, but I want to say, in view of the advice I have had, that I would not expect very much to come from it. I think I ought to say that, because if the noble Lord, Lord Mowbray, were speaking from this Box this evening, despite what he may have said on an earlier occasion, I am quite sure that that is the advice he would have been given and is what he would have been telling the House.


My Lords, I am, of course, the first to know that ministerial briefs change from year to year.


My Lords, I have tried to answer the points raised, or have indicated that will write where I have not been able to give useful information. I trust the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, will be satisfied that he has caused the issue to be thought about again, and in that we have suggested that he pursues this matter actively with the East Sussex County Council he may feel that I have tried to be constructive and helpful in the reply that I have given.