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Upgrading a branch line

The market town of Uckfield in East Sussex sits in an unrivalled rural location, between the South Downs National Park and the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It is the southern terminus of a branch line connecting rural stops and market towns in East Sussex, Kent and Surrey, before joining the Brighton main line near Croydon for onward travel into Central London.

Before 1969, the line continued south through Uckfield onto Lewes and Brighton, but British Rail removed the link to Lewes. Services and stations went into a steady decline, and while a basic commuter service of 2 trains between Uckfield and London remained in the morning and evening peak, all other journeys required a change of trains. This meant local residents had few practical alternatives to the car, and commuters often needed to drive for half an hour to Haywards Heath for a fast connection to London.

Since 2003, services on the line have been transformed by Southern, the local train operator. The change began with a £50million investment in new diesel trains, replacing old locomotives and slam‐door carriages from the 1960s. Nine two‐car trains and six four‐car trains were introduced between 2003 and 2005, along with a brand new timetable with direct services into London Bridge throughout the day.

Better trains running on a better timetable saw passengers flock to the line, with passengers using Uckfield station more than doubling in number from 1997 to 2006, from just under 90,000 a year to 218,000. Keeping up with that success became an ever more urgent challenge as every train was limited by the short platforms at each of the stations. Yet the boom in passengers brought about by Southern’s new trains helped make the case for Network Rail to lengthen platforms all the way down the line, as well as investing in new and refurbished station buildings.

With new longer platforms in place by 2016, Southern took the next leap, investing in more new carriages to provide up to ten‐car trains, providing up to a 50% increase in capacity in morning peak services. This second investment helped accommodate a further doubling in passengers as they rose to over 451,000 in 2018. That’s a 400% increase since Southern’s investment programme started.

That’s not only great news for passengers, but it's also been a huge source of pride for the towns and villages on the line, with one of the most active community rail partnerships in the South East. As the trains and stations have improved, volunteers have worked tirelessly to create attractive station gardens, work with local schools and community groups to learn more about the redevelopment of the railway line, and welcome thousands of visitors to the area’s national parks and nature reserves.

The investment by Southern in new trains on the Uckfield line created new opportunities for the train operator and Network Rail to work together in partnership. By joining forces to make sure that new longer platforms were in place to serve the new longer trains, the capacity of the line increased significantly. It’s a great example of train companies and Network Rail working together as one railway, with shared ambitions for their customers.

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