Cllr Geoffrey Theobald is Leader of the Conservative Group on Brighton & Hove City Council.
Commuters across the south coast have, for many months, faced utter misery with train cancellations and train strikes, on top of the ‘revised service’ currently being administered across the Southern trains network to cope with the ongoing dispute between the RMT Union and the rail company.
It is not just rail users who are feeling the effects of the recent strike action: business owners in my fair city of Brighton and Hove who rely so heavily on people travelling into the city are suffering significant drops in trade during these walk-outs. The Brighton Pier suffered up to a 30 per cent drop in the number of visitors on the first day of the August strike. Further anguish awaits the south coast as we face up to five more strikes on our transport network in the coming months which could do damage to Brighton and Hove’s local economy unless disputes are resolved soon.
The new Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, will no doubt have an inbox full of angry messages about Southern’s problems, not least because his constituency of Epsom and Ewell comes under their network. His very welcome intervention last week with £20 million funding and the appointment of a rail industry troubleshooter to help get the service back to where it should be shows that he recognises just how damaging the situation is.
Our City is on the cusp of so many exciting new developments, with the British Airways i360 recently open and attracting great swathes of tourists to our shores. Future plans include a considerable campus expansion and the development of a biomedical centre at Sussex University, a state-of- the-art Advanced Engineering Building at the University of Brighton, a new conference centre with the waterfront project, not to mention the possibility of Brighton and Hove Albion making it to the Premier League next season.
Yet as the city grows in importance and population the current rail service cannot cope even if the trains are running perfectly, let alone for the future we are attempting to forge for Brighton and Hove as so much more than a seaside jaunt.
To me these are some of the many reasons why we are crying out for an additional Brighton to London rail mainline – BML2. BML2 would bring not only enormous economic benefits to the wider Greater Brighton area, but also ease congestion on what is the busiest train line in the country. An additional line could provide a quick and reliable rail alternative when sections of the existing Brighton mainline are closed altogether for maintenance or when there are problems. Inconvenience that residents from Worthing to Eastbourne and long-suffering commuters are all too familiar with. It could also be administered by a new rail company with fresh terms of engagement with the trade unions.
Fundamentally it’s about providing far more capacity in the network so that more trains can operate and hardworking people can rely on getting to work on time, comfortably and without delays. They may even get a seat! The constant disruption of strikes and late-running or cancelled services on top of misinformation and severe overcrowding affects society exponentially as transport is a pivotal element of a successful economy.
As a strong supporter of the campaign for a second Brighton to London rail mainline for a number of years, I remain hopeful that BML2 will get the green light from the Government as it really is a vital missing piece in the jigsaw of an efficient and integrated sustainable transport system in the south-east of England.
I await with baited breath the new feasibility study into BML2 commissioned by George Osborne prior to his departure which is due to report in the Autumn and very much hope that the new Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, will have the same interest as his predecessor in building a new main line in the south in order to take this forward. Indeed the appointment of Brighton Kemptown MP Simon Kirby to Economic Secretary to the Treasury in Theresa May’s new Government can only be a positive step forward for the cause as Simon has been a vocal and long-standing supporter of BML2.
Theresa May has been clear that post-Brexit, Britain is open for business and investment on a global scale. In this sense, BML2 would be an enormously valuable transport scheme which would offer so much opportunity for growth and prosperity across London and the South East. Whitehall must therefore grasp the nettle and move forward with BML2 without any more delay.