Opinion: A south coast main line railway

The deadline for policy motions to the party’s Spring Conference in Liverpool has now passed.

As always, it will be up to the Federal Conference Committee (newly elected at the end of last year), to select the motions to be debated on the Conference floor, and no doubt the imperative of the General Election will focus minds as to which motions to pick; and there may even be a little direction from HQ as to which motions best suit the messaging!
Many of us will have now read and digested Ryan Coetzee and Hilary Stephenson’s Message Briefing which identified our five main policy commitments for the General Election campaign.

Of course the intention is that these policies bolster the over-arching narrative: a stronger economy, a fairer society, with opportunity for everyone.
But we also need bold Liberal Democrat policies reaching beyond any putative negotiations issuing from a balanced Parliament in May, don’t we?

What will also be helpful to us, at Spring Conference, will be to discuss future policies which speak to our aspirations as well as our pragmatism. It will be helpful to have specific future goals which join up different areas of policy and explain our values in practice.

In putting together our motion A South Coast Main Line Railway, we have sought to do exactly that. This railway would have a direct positive impact on the economies of at least thirty constituencies along the South Coast. (Incidentally, some of these are already held by Liberal Democrat MPs; in many others the Liberal Democrats are the main contenders). We already have support from Dover to Gosport, and Fareham via Brighton and Lewes.

We need to think East-West as well as North-South, and we consider that this bold proposal would send a strong message about Liberal Democrat commitment to the less advantaged people and areas along the South Coast, and to the objectives of sustainable economic development.

We must build on the work of the Parliament just gone. Not only in terms of proving that we can deliver policy in Government, but also explaining how policy areas overlap, because the Liberal Democrat narrative of positive and negative freedoms neatly join up areas of policy. A progressive, joined up, stakeholder recovery: that’s what our country is crying out for.

We are not, as many have rightly pointed out on here, a split-the-difference party. We have an important role to play and important things to say about the future of our country.

If you are a voting rep and (if it is selected for debate) would like to support our motion, please contact myself or our Association Chair, Chris Lewcock via www.har0ld.org.uk.

The relevant proposed motion in full is as follows:

A South Coast Main Line Railway
Conference notes that:

A. The South Coast towns and cities and their environs between Southampton and Ashford have a wealth of historical, cultural, natural and recreational resources which already make a significant national economic contribution but are currently under-exploited economically ;
B. There are numerous pockets of social deprivation, poor housing conditions, poor educational attainment etc. which are on a par with the worst regions in the country;
C. A very high proportion of coastal residents is occupied in the hotel, catering or other tourism and leisure industries which have traditionally been low wage employers. There are many other low and middle-income earners in associated educational sectors;
D. The tourist and recreational “offers” and the labour and skills pools of the South Coast towns and cities are fragmented between many different coastal settlements;
E. There are existing and proposed large-scale residential and commercial developments along the coast which are poorly connected by public transport;
F. The opportunities for many employees to seek and take up better quality and better paid employment are limited due to relative exclusion from the highly competitive London employment market and due to the slow, inconvenient and inadequate capacity of rail services linking together towns along the coast;
G. The opportunities for employers to tap into a deeper labour and skills pool and the possibility of tourists combining activities between resorts are also limited due to under-used rail facilities at Ashford and poor rail linkages, including disjointed and slow access to the Channel Tunnel, Gatwick Airport, Southampton Docks;
H. The vast proportion of rail passenger and freight traffic from continental Europe to the UK has to pass through London on already congested networks resulting in unnecessary costs for firms and costs and stress for passengers; and
I. Efficiently used railways have great potential to reduce carbon emissions.

Conference welcomes:

I. The achievements of Liberal Democrat Ministers Norman Baker and Susan Kramer in promoting a higher priority for investment in our railways;
II. The creation by Dept of BIS under Vince Cable of the South East Region and Solent local enterprise partnerships (LEPs) with potential to coordinate substantial infrastructure proposals;
III. The initiative by the Deputy Prime Minister which has led to the creation of a Coastal Communities Fund with scope to propose and promote public transport links along the coast;
IV. The Policies set out in Policy Document 85 2008 Fast Track Britain and the Lib Dem GE Manifesto of 2010;
V. The emphasis in the Liberal Democrat draft General Election Manifesto on infrastructure development to support economic development;
VI. Existing proposals in Network Rail forward plans for limited improvements to the rail-line between Ashford and Bexhill.

Conference expresses concern that:

a. The perfectly proper emphasis by Ministers and the media on the need to re-balance investment from London to the North may distract attention from the very real problems which continue to exist in coastal South East England;
b. The national debates on HS2 and/or HS3 may distract attention from the potential for links along the south coast to HS1, the Channel Tunnel and the London Gateway in the east and in the west to Southampton Docks and northwards to the Midlands to increase transfer of freight from road to more environmentally sustainable rail and to develop tourism and regional employment choice;
c. Strengthening rail links between London and the South Coast without also strengthening links along the coast will tend to reinforce existing inequalities within the South East;
d. Currently proposed limited improvements to rail-links will not match the needs or the opportunities at stake.

Conference calls for:

1. High priority to be given in the infrastructure planning of any incoming Government to the creation of the physical and institutional infrastructure for a South Coast Mainline railway running between Ashford International and Southampton Airport and City; and
2. As a first step the Department for Transport should direct Network Rail and the Local Enterprise Partnerships for Solent and the South East to conduct a feasibility study and public consultation exercise to establish the way forward.

* Nick Perry is an approved mental health professional and was the parliamentary candidate for Hastings & Rye at the General Election.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • I can’t remember the last time I saw a goods train in SE England. Most of the network is for passengers.
    I think the Wealden Link needs reconstructing so that Newhaven can be revived economically.

  • Tsar Nicolas 15th Jan '15 - 10:48am

    I am always happy to support railway developments.

    Sometimes, you don’t realise that a big development has taken place until it’s finished or well underway. Once such example would be the provision of an east-west route (avoiding London) connecting Harwich and Nuneaton for freight, which has involved a number of much smaller developments including, if memory serves me correctly, a chord at Ipswich station to obviate the need for westbound trains from Harwich to reverse into that station.

    Of course, what Britain really needs is a north-south passenger and freight route in Wales along the west coast – Camarthen, Abeystwyth and Caernarfon..

  • Everyone’s in favour of new railway lines… until the route is published.

  • Shame Nick didn’t give a little more background to this proposal. It isn’t clear what the relationship between what Nick has outlined and the Manifesto for improved rail services in East Sussex put up in April 2013 [http://www.eastsussexrail.org.uk/manifesto1305.htm ]. I would hope the proposal has been worked up a little more.

    The only real problem is that the proposal doesn’t stand a chance, given how politicians have demonstrated they much prefer to be associated with expensive shiny new trainsets which have no sensible economic or business justification.

  • @Tsar Nicolas – re: Harwich and Nuneaton for freight
    This is actually Felixstowe (other side of the river estuary)to Nuneaton; Harwich is ferry and cruise ship port… But yes the strategic rail freight network is slowing being assembled without drawing much media or political attention. In the case of this particular line, it will mean that Felixstowe will be able to handle increasing levels of containerised freight, without the need to (and disruption of) upgrade the A14 along its entire length.

  • Tsar Nicolas 15th Jan '15 - 12:19pm

    Thanks, Roland, for the correction.

  • Alex Macfie 15th Jan '15 - 1:33pm

    We should also make interchange with the Channel Tunnel easier at Ashford, by establishing it as a proper en-route stop. as opposed to the quasi-parliamentary service we have currently. It seems bizarre that taking the train from SE England to mainland Europe usually involves going through London even when it would be more logical to avoid London by changing at an interchange near the Tunnel.

  • David Rogers 15th Jan '15 - 2:14pm

    I agree with Nick! Now where have I heard that before…..but seriously, why stop at Southampton? The south coast of Britain extends much further westwards, and a more ambitious high speed scheme connecting Plymouth/Exeter/Bournemouth/Southampton/Portsmouth/Brighton & Hove with Ashford and the Channel Tunnel would be a great idea. Anyone remember the Folkestone/Honiton trunk road proposals?

  • matt (Bristol) 15th Jan '15 - 2:33pm

    East-West travel of any kind is a real issue in this country. Lving in Bristol, I could be in Scotland easily, well before I would be on the Norfolk coast.

    But I spy several areas of protected countryside on that route, and even more if the rather more ambitious Plymouth – Ashford route were to be constructed. MBoy is right.

    For what it’s worth, you’re fighting 200 years of railway history, poor planning, lack of cooperaiton and competition between railways including the London, Chatham and Dover; South Eastern; London, Brighton and South Coast and London and SouthWestern who all hated each others’ guts until 1922 when they were combined into the Southern Railway which focused primarily on making profit on electrified routes mainly moving passenger traffic into and out of London.

    Good luck, but tread careful.

  • David Evershed 15th Jan '15 - 4:11pm

    I agree with the proposal except it should be a motorway rather than a railway line.

    Roads are more flexible and used by a far greater proportion of people than railways.

  • Jim Forrest 15th Jan '15 - 6:01pm

    Fareham Lib Dems are supporting this exciting proposal (and future extension westward as David Rogers suggests). Of course there would be huge difficulties to overcome, particularly in finding extra land if we want to maintain existing services during construction of the new. The corridor between the South Downs and the sea is narrow and densely populated in some sections, scientifically and environmentally sensitive in others.
    But a bold approach could mitigate some other problems, such as the ludicrous volume of road traffic around Portsmouth Harbour and Southampton Water. Imaginative tunelling and bridging could restore a rail link to Gosport, the largest town in England without a railway station and mop up some of the commuter traffic from the peninsula which chokes the M27 and its feeders. Of course it would involve radical changes to the landscape, but so did the Ribblehead Viaduct, or for that matter the Romans’ aqueducts.

  • I can recognise that the cost of extending all the way west could be too much to start with but I can’t understand why you wouldn’t bring in Bournemouth and Poole in the first phase.

  • matt (Bristol)

    “I spy several areas of protected countryside on that route, ”

    Though I think many areas of teh country side are enhanced by the presence of a train line, and it makes my accessing that country side to enjoy it much easier.

    The modern “freeze in time” attitude is not actually enhancing peoples lives. We need to get back to allowing things to develop whilst doing all we can to retain the best aspects. If built people would consider it a vital part of teh landscape in 30 years time.

  • Stevan Rose 16th Jan '15 - 6:42pm

    Good one, inject major capital investment into middle income areas where Lib Dems might win a seat or two, when there are thousands more deserving priorities. The state of railways in the North West is diabolical as some may discover if they travel by local train to the Spring Conference. The East -West connections along the M62 corridor are also dreadful. Try a 2 carriage “nodding donkey” bus on bogies during rush hour when you visit. It’s an experience not to be missed. Buses would be handy too. My local bus stop in Greater Manchester hasn’t seen a bus in years, and after 7pm the only public transport between Bolton and Bury is an hourly bus and costs a fortune. If this policy is adopted we are sticking two fingers up at all the poorer areas of this country that need their economies boosting. Try putting money where it is really needed. Draw up some proper transport priorities rather than electioneering claptrap.

  • @Stevan Rose -There is nothing stopping local parties, outside of the south east, from giving backing to transport infrastructure projects that impact their constituents and putting them forward to conference..
    In this respect Nick and his local party are demonstrating localism in action. Perhaps those living in the North-West need to form their own rail alliance…

  • Chris Lewcock 19th Jan '15 - 3:06pm

    Thanks everybody for a stimulating debate.

    “middle income communities”. There seems to be a sort of London golden halo effect for the south east as seen from the rest of the country. Just as there are pockets of national scale prosperity in the NW (Audley Edge et al) there are pockets of national scale deprivation in the south-east and these are often found along the south coast; eg some of Hastings’ Wards are comparable with the worst in the north west. Better public transport along the coast, as opposed to in and out of London, would greatly enhance job choices for those in relatively low-skilled employment sectors eg tourism.
    “the state of railways in the north west is diabolical”. Agreed, I’ve experienced some of that myself. But don’t assume that the state of rail services down here in the gilded south is so much better!! Lots ! of investment has gone or is going into Crossrail and upgrading commuter lines (necessarily) but most of that has served to feed into London’s dominance. Much less has gone into the outer “doughnut” including the south coast towns and cities. The 90 odd miles from Hastings to Southampton takes 3 hours on over-crowded snail-paced trains.

    David Evershed: Motorways are more flexible?
    Motorways and other roads are an essential component of an integrated flexible transport system alongside appropriate public transport services. With the stress on integrated and system. Motorways/roads per se can be more flexible for those with access to a car. Not so good for the increasing numbers of increasingly elderly residents and tourists along the south coast, nor for children nor for young job seekers. Not so good for carrying large numbers of people into and out of town centres without the accompanying destruction of urban centres with car parks and barren roads. Piecemeal improvements are (slowly) taking place to get the A27 upgraded along the coast. A whole new motorway to carry the sort of volumes of traffic which could be carried by an upgraded railway would be many times more financially and environmentally costly (charging through the length of the South Downs National Park) than the various schemes needed to stitch together the existing though fragmented railway infrastructure along the coast. (We aren’t by the way calling for an entirely new HS4 route). And even some of the latter cost might be defrayed by co-location of new parkway stations and new development sites?

    David Rogers, PSI: Extend westwards.
    There is some logic in talking about a south coast mainline railway extending to Bournemouth/Poole (and the Channel Island ferries?) or Bristol and Exeter in one direction and to Dover and Canterbury and the Isle of Thanet in the East. Those possibilties aren’t ruled out by our proposal and we might not resist an amendment. However, it was a question of coming up with a “manageable” concept. We restricted our initial proposals from Southampton Docks/Airport to Ashford International because at either end these are clear under-exploited development “anchors” and evident transport interchanges or hubs to onward destinations (in the case of Southampton to the west country and to the Midlands and North, in the case of Ashford to Dover, the Channel Tunnel and East London) which generate or might generate traffic between them along the coast. Ashford to Southampton seems to be a clearcut missing link in the national network for which justification can be developed as a coherent project concept on its own merits. Possibly as a Phase 1 leading to further upgrading projects to east and west?

  • Stevan Rose 19th Jan '15 - 6:38pm

    … Stopping local parties…

    What local party? Around here it’s me, the owner of the local sandal and socks shop, and a dog called Banjo. I haven’t seen a Lib Dem Focus since 1995. I should have kept it as a memento.

    Hastings has 28% of local areas considered most deprived and is the worst authority in the South. Liverpool has 51% of areas considered most deprived, Manchester 46%, Knowsley 45%, Hull 43%. There is a limited pot of money. Priorities have to be set. Targeting the South coast strikes me as an attempt to emulate pork barrel politics as played in the US.

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