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Green signal to reopen rail line

The last time trains ran between Uckfield and Lewes, England were the reigning World Cup winners.

Wishful campaigners are hoping footballing success this summer could coincide with a return to action for the railway as well.

It is 40 years since England's triumph and almost as long since the last train ran on the line.

Once part of a busy route, linking London with large areas of Surrey, Sussex and the coast, trains ceased to run on the seven-mile stretch between the two towns in 1969.

Tracks and stations have since fallen into disrepair and much of the line has been demolished.

There is a popular misconception the Uckfield to Lewes link fell victim to transport minister Richard Beeching's cuts in the Sixties. In truth the line survived that threat, satisfying inspectors it was well enough used, while others in Sussex and around the country were axed.

The decision to cut the railway was instead made by East Sussex County Council, anxious to clear the way for its new Phoenix Causeway road into Lewes.

The move caused uproar among rail users, forced to drive or catch buses to get from Uckfield and Crowborough to Lewes, and onwards to Brighton, Newhaven and Eastbourne.

To reach the coast by train, Uckfield residents have to travel north as far as Croydon before catching a service which will take them south.

Most would-be passengers choose to go by road instead.

Ever since the closure, campaigners have called for a reopening but they have seen many false dawns as proposals have emerged and quickly fallen apart.

Now, for the first time, popular and political support has gathered behind an impressive new scheme, backed by major private investors, and campaigners are more confident their wish is finally going to come true.

Brian Hart, chairman of the Wealden Line Campaign group, said: "This really feels like it is a project that's going to work. It's not just pie in the sky speculation by campaigners, it's a genuine scheme with serious backing and it's been made at a time when the railway is needed most."

The momentum behind the project is due primarily to Intermodality, a transport solutions firm which worked on the Channel Tunnel project and a successful seven-mile rail reconstruction at Bristol's sea port.

The company, based at East Hoathly, near Uckfield, has carried out independent studies of the route and attracted financial backing from Bride Parks Merlin and Norwest Holst Vinci. It has also drawn interest from Transmanche, operators of the port at Newhaven, which could also be given a better connection to London if the line is rebuilt.

Intermodality's lead has been followed by councils along the route which have been quick to give the project their support, politically and financially.

In March a board consisting of Lewes and Wealden MPs Norman Baker and Charles Hendry and representatives of the county council and district councils voted in favour of supporting the project in its next step.

This summer, work will begin on a detailed study of the existing trackbed, preserved by the county council, providing the exact cost of the project. Building work could start by 2010, if the planning process runs smoothly, and trains could start running by 2012.

Consultant Nick Gallup, of Intermodality, said: "Of all the rail projects being proposed around the country this one has the most going for it."

His firm is forming a new company to concentrate on rail reinstatement projects.

Mr Gallup said: "There is a real focus developing on improving infrastructure because towns are going to be developing so much. Rail is going to be key for that."

Towns on the existing line between Uckfield and London have grown considerably since 1969 and several have been earmarked as areas for development in recent housing plans.

Up to 500 new homes are due to be built in Uckfield alone in the next ten years, yet many residents have to travel to London, Lewes or the coast for employment and entertainment. Use of the railway between Uckfield and London has increased by more than 100 per cent since new trains and timetables were introduced by train operators Southern at the start of 2005.

Campaigners say this proves how badly-needed a rebuilt rail link to Lewes is and how important it is to the towns on the line. Uckfield deputy mayor Duncan Bennett said: "It's the most vital project for the town at the moment. There is a huge groundswell of public opinion in favour of it."

The proposed line would follow the original route south from Uckfield and through Isfield and Barcombe. Its only major complication would be on the approach to Lewes where roads and housing have been built on the old trackbed.

Intermodality's suggested solution is to create a new track through the village of Hamsey, joining the Lewes to Haywards Heath railway near Cooksbridge.

This idea has not proved popular with residents in Hamsey, the only parish on the railway's route which has not supported the reconstruction.

Michael Ball, chairman of Hamsey Parish Council, said: "The railway would not be good for the area. It would spoil the rural atmosphere."

Southern has said it cannot financially support the reconstruction of the Uckfield to Lewes line, estimated to cost £50 million, but would be keen to run trains.

While the obvious beneficiaries of the project would be the north Sussex towns on the railway's route, its implications could be wider reaching.

MP Mr Baker said: "It will clearly bring economic, social and environmental benefit to a large area of Sussex by giving people mobility and taking cars off the roads.

"It will also provide an important diversionary route for the London to Brighton main line, which is used to its absolute capacity.

"There is no way to relieve pressure on that line. There are no adequate alternatives. This would provide one."

His view has been supported by Brighton and Hove City Council, while Shelley Atlas, chairman of Brighton Line Commuters, said: "It is very frustrating for passengers travelling to London when you are forced to catch replacement bus services or go on long diversions. An alternative line can only improve the situation."

Coun Bennett said: "It is time to put right the damage done by East Sussex County Council 40 years ago and reconnect Uckfield to the rest of the county the way it should be."



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