Lorries causing High Street traffic congestion was a major theme as Uckfield town councillors debated Network Rail’s plan to extend the railway station platform.
Fears were expressed that using any of two potential temporary routes into the building site – River Way/Hempstead Meadows and Mill Lane – would cause more delays soon after last year’s roadworks chaos and would coincide with works further up the High Street.
Ecological concerns were again expressed about building an access across part of the Hempstead Meadow Nature Reserve or, if Mill Lane is used, the disruption to businesses and people living nearby.
The possibility of a temporary road on the nature reserve acting as a “dam” at the time of flooding was also raised and the possibility that it would divert water into the Waitrose car park, and possibly properties, was also raised.
Members of the town council’s environment and leisure committee deferred for the second time a decision on Network Rail’s application to build an access across the nature reserve.
It was decided to call a meeting of the whole council to make a final decision, likely to be held in the next two weeks.
Network Rail appears to have ruled out the option of accessing the site via Alexandra Road in New Town.
Council faced with ‘difficult choices’
It is also exploring a longer route which would be from the small industrial estate at Bird-in-Eye Hill, Framfield.
Town mayor, Cllr Ian Smith, said councillors were faced with difficult choices.
Network Rail plans to extend the platform at Uckfield and other stations on the line north to accommodate longer trains.
At the moment, Uckfield is an eight-car platform. The extension would make it suitable for ten carriages (12 if electric trains were introduced).
The scheme is part of an overall proejct to provide more capacity between East Croydon and the capital. At the moment, Uckfield Line trains have the fewest carriages on the route. Network Rail was also aware of the overcrowding issues on peak services.
What now follows is a precis of the council debate, as it unfolded. Councillors went through a process of asking questions of Network Rail’s representatives.
Before the debate started a number of members of the public spoke.
Josh Gibbens said he was concerned the project was set to last nine months and the impact it would have on nearby residents and people who use the nature reserve.
Martyn Stenning, an ecologist who does voluntary works on many of the town’s natural areas, said he was totally against Network Rail using the nature reserve.
“A nature reserve is a reserve for nature and there is nothing natural about what Network Rail is proposing to do,” he said.
A number of important issues had not been considered in reports submitted by Network Rail in support of its application to use the reserve.
‘Road might create a dam’
He said the road as planned would likely cause a dam blocking flood water coming through the reserve and channelling it into the Waitrose car park.
Paul Meakin, a town councillor who is not a member of the committee, spoke from the public gallery.
He said laying the road across the nature reserve would be noisy, disruptive and vehicles driving over the stones would be noisy and dusty in dry weather.
Vicky Tilling from Network Rail, in response to public comments, said at once the height of the road could be reduced to mitigate fears of a “dam”.
“We could look at making it much shallower to reduce the likelihood of creating a dam,” she said.
She insisted Network Rail was still talking to Waitrose for permission to use part of its car park as a works compound and said as yet there had not been a final refusal.
“There were concerns we would get access without any discussion with them which we have said is not the case and we do appreciate we need their full co-operation but at this point in time we are still talking with Waitrose,” she said.
If Waitrose turns down the idea, Network Rail would set up a compound in the car park it is building on the opposite side of the road to the station.
Ms Tilling promised they would consult with local businesses to “understand what their needs are” with regards to deliveries.
Deliveries will avoid rush hours
Deliveries, she said, would be timed to avoid the morning and afternoon rush hours. Wet concrete would have to be delivered as and when needed
They would, if requested, implement a left only turn for construction vehicles from River Way on to the High Street to reduce the time it takes for vehicles to manoeuvre and reduce the likelihood of traffic backing up on the High Street.
Mill Lane the cheaper option
Using Mill Lane was a cheaper option, she said. However, they preferred to pay the extra set-up costs to go via the Waitrose and nature reserve because of the disturbance caused to Mill Road residents and businesses over many months.
“While we acknowledge that we would be working in very close proximity to residents and businesses if we go via Mill Lane, and we would reduce the impact as far as we can, from experience any construction site that is outside someone’s front window, whether it is a business or their house, they are not comfortable bedfellows so where we can avoid that situation then we would look to do that,” she said.
The road on the reserve would be enclosed in a geo-textile material to help reduce noise “to a certain extent” when lorries drove over it. She said the proposed road over the nature reserve was not near houses and the Mill Lane route would need a stone road from the compound near the roller mill to the site. This would be nearer houses, although shorter than the other route.
Cars currently parked in Mill Lane could be accommodated elsewhere but she feared drivers would react poorly to a longer walk to work, even though only a few minutes.
Nature reserve route ‘not very special’
A representative from a firm which produced an environmental report on the nature reserve for Network Rail said the nature reserve would not lose very much by the works and that which was temporarily used is not “very special”.
He said the proposed route was on the area of least ecological interest on that nature reserve. It was on a path where only a couple of species survive. When it gets wet and muddy, walkers have made the path wider and wider.
“From an ecological point of view any works along that track are going to be very minimal to your nature reserve. The thought was that you could use these works to improve your local nature reserve by installing or extending the hard-surface path all the way through,” he said. “Hopefully, over time, that would reduce the width of that path.
Pedestrian access to nature reserve
“There was a suggestion about putting another pedestrian access point and that crossed between some nice mature trees, across some nice tussocky grass and I suggest that was not the most appropriate place to put it, Mr James Simpson said.
He said discussions had now led to the suggestion the pedestrian access would be in parallel to the proposed access route, pretty much in the same position as it is at the moment.
“You are not losing much by these works. That little bit is not very special,” he said.
Committee chairman, Cllr Alan Whittaker, told Mr Simpson: “It is our local nature reserve and we value it very highly.”
Ms Tilling said the proposed pedestrian and haul road would be completely separate.
Cllr Helen Firth asked why there was a need to extend the platform.
She said there were other ways of doing the work without causing chaos in the High Street.
“Currently we have enough chaos and I think we have all just about had enough of roadworks and interference for the flow of traffic in the town.”
Sussex Horse Rescue
She said there were vehicles that could run both on roads and tracks. She asked if any talks had taken place with the Sussex Horse Rescue to use part of their land as a compound and with the road/rail vehicles conveying materials to the platform site.
Ms Tilling said no approach had been made to use that area.
Accessing the site from the track was not practical, she said, for a number of reasons.
Engineering trains a national resource
Trains needed for such works had to be booked 18 months to two years in advance. They were a national resource and were allocated in line with national priorities.
“We would not be able to deliver the project in the current timescale,” she said.
There would be a large number of deliveries of wet concrete which needs to be made and delivered within two hours and doing it by rail would not be possible.
Cllr Firth asked why Network Rail why there was such an urgent need to extend the platform.
Reason for platform extension
Ms Tilling said the platform extension programme had been agreed by the Office of Rail Regulation about 18 months ago.
Cllr Firth commented: “Then, why didn’t you look at the access then?”
Ms Tilling said they had been planning the project in great detail for the last eight months or so. Access is something we have been looking at.
“We have looked at different options but delivery by rail of all of our materials isn’t possible. We have been looking at the different options to how to get there by road. Where we are today is the culmination of what we have looked at so far,” she said.
Ms Tilling explained the capacity issues on the line and from East Croydon to London and said longer trains was the solution agreed upon. Longer trains from Uckfield was the best opportunity to relieve the problems.
Minimum platform length
“In order to get a ten-car train into Uckfield, which is the longest of this particular type of train that can be accommodated, we need to extend the platform to allow the train to draw into the platform. It has to be fully within the platform for the driver to change ends, check the front of the train before he can pull out. This is the minimum platform length that can be installed before ten car trains can be installed,” she said.
Cllr Jim Molesworth Edwards pointed out the Waitrose car park had a height barrier, used to deter travellers from moving on to the site. The supermarket, he said, particularly wanted the barrier down and locked at night.
Ms Tilling said if agreement was reached with Waitrose, Network Rail would wish to have a key to the lock on the barrier and raise it when needed to admit a lorry and close and lock it immediately behind the vehicle.
Chamber of Commerce
“We would be happy to work with them to maintain the security of their site,” she said.
He said one of their comments was: “Complete traffic chaos for weeks on end such as experienced last year is unacceptable. Can we confirm that Network Rail planners are aware that the High Street itself is due to have probably due to have two chunks of major works on it.
“Access from River Way. Turning left might not be any easier than turning right becuasde of the length of the vehicle on to a narrow bridge rather than a wider road.”
Cllr Hallett added that they didn’t believe Mill Lane was feasible and he thought it fair to say most people accepted Alexandra Road wasn’t.
He asked why so little attention had been given to route via Bird-in-Eye Hill, known as option three.
“Yet again the one option that doesn’t bring all the traffic into the town centre, option three, just doesn’t seem to be getting anything like the same sort of airing.
“I accept it goes across a field and then some rough field/meadow but that is one option which avoids the traffic coming into the High Street where all of the problems have been and are ongoing.
“What stage are we at? Has it been eliminated as it keeps being ignored?”
Ms Tilling said option three had only been considered very recently. The suggestion had been made to Network Rail and some preliminary investigations had taken place.
“Obviously, it is a very long route, passes by a few businesses, which isn’t in itself a problem, but is something we do need to be aware of.
“I do understand that there is a possibility of creating a nature reserve on part of that option three route which suggests areas of ecological importance. I am not sure whether that is correct or at what stage that proposal is at,” she said.
If anything of ecological importance was found, there would be, Ms Tilling, said there was likely to be a similar discussion to the one over Hempstead Meadows.
“We have only been looking at that route very recently so our proposals for that route are not as well developed as they are for one (Hempstead Meadows) and two (Mill Lane).
Scheme appears to be “rushed upon us”
“That’s why there is a difference in the level of detail,” she said.
Cllr Hallett said “this project seems to be suddenly rushed upon us”.
He asked if the extra carriages were available and whether the project could be deferred, giving time to properly investigate option three and to give Uckfield High Street time to recover from its next batch of problems.
Ms Tilling said the carriages were available. They would be released from their current use shortly and then be refurbished and upgraded.
Platform lengthening is not a “surprise”
The Department for Transport had contracted the rail operator to run the trains this year but “we have agreed with the Office of Rail Regulation that it would be next year when we would have the platforms ready”.
She added: “Although this project isn’t a surprise and come out of nowhere, it is correct that we are looking to bring forward the delivery of them sooner than previously was planned so the longer trains can be used sooner.
She said Network Rail had been looking at access options since the autumn of last year and that it was in the new year she began inquiries about who to contact if access via Hempstead Meadow was wanted.
She said the first job was to identify a preferred route to get to a site and investigate those. If other options are suggested, they are looked into.
Aware of more High Street works
“It might seem as an out of the blue request but it has come at a time in the project when we plan our site works.
“In terms of the High Street work I am in touch with East Sussex council. I am aware there is more work to be done on the High Street and the issues surrounding those.”
She said vehicles would be moving in and out of the site but Network Rail was not suggesting putting in any “traffic management plans. We don’t need to create one-way working, for example”.
The time it took for a lorry to manoeuvre would be the impact the works would have on traffic.
Worries over ‘left only’ for site vehicles
She said the left only turn for site traffic was a suggestion put to Network Rail but could be altered, if wished.
Cllr Hallett said the problem with a left-turn only was that lorries would be turning at 90 degrees on to a narrower piece of road. “The odds on them going over that corner of the pavement is almost guaranteed,” he said.
Ms Tilling pointed out Mill Lane was narrower than River Way, which would bring its own complications for traffic.
Cllr Sam Lear said the platform extension was an important investment in the town.
She said the Neighbourhood Plan had seen residents call for more investment in infrastructure.
Cllr Lear added: “This is one of the most difficult decisions we have been faced with as a council.”
She said that there were pedestrian safety issues with both the Mill Lane and River Way/Hempstead Meadow options. Mill Lane was a popular route in and out of the town for many, including children and the nature reserve was popular too, including for dog walking.
Ms Tilling said if Hempstead Meadow was used, the access point for pedestrians and lorries would be totally separate.
Banksman to oversee vehicle safety
The access road would be fenced and only accessible to site staff and vehciles. There would be no public access to the road.
A banksman would be used to oversee reversing lorries.
In Mill Lane, she said it was more complicated to maintain the segregation between pedestrians and lorries. The width of the road would preclude a permanent separation.
Deliveries, she said, would need to be managed much more closely.
Vital importance of pedestrian safety
Studies had not got the level of detail as to whether it would be necessary for the five or ten minutes a delivery was taking place to stop pedestrians at narrow points or at the beginning or end of the school day.
“Whatever way we do it, we need to make sure the site is safe but also more importantly pedestrians are safe and general public is safe,” she said.
Mill Lane would be more complicated to maintain that safety.
Nature reserve route less disruptive for people
Ms Tilling said the nature reserve was easier for Network Rail because it was “less disruptive to other people”.
Cllr Whittaker commented: “That is debateable.”
Ms Tilling continued: “I am not under-estimating the impact if we use the meadow or with Waitrose and I don’t want to under-estimate the impact of the short-term changes that we might need to make.
“But in terms of having vehicles passing businesses several times a day for many months, we don’t have that if we go by the meadow,” she said.
Mill Lane is narrow for lorries
She said when she had attended a meeting in Uckfield about the High Street works a resident of Mill Lane had said the emergency services might need to be involved because of restrictive width and the potential difficulties in getting an ambulance to the area.
“It is easier for us if we use the meadow but that is because of the number of different parties that will be affected if we go by Mill Lane,” she said.
Birds nesting season
Mr Simpson was asked if the bird nesting season had begun.
He said the nesting season lasted from March to August.
The habitat would be assessed before any clearance works went ahead.
Birds would not be nesting in each and every bit of scrub but if they were there, then a zone (5m around) that nest would be created and the nest would be observed until the birds had fledged.
It was normally recommended that works were done outside the nesting season but that was not always possible.
The practice was for ecologists to go in and check and observe what was happening to allow works to go ahead.
Ecologist on site
Ms Tilling said Network Rail was happy to have an ecologist on site while the site was cleared and road built.
Cllr Thelma Rumbelow said there was nothing in writing from Waitrose about the plan. “Isn’t it time we heard from them about what is going on,” she asked.
She said Network Rail was hoping to start work in July which she thought was “extraordinarily short notice”.
Ms Tilling said Waitrose were talking to them at the moment. They wished disruption to the car park to be kept to a minimum and preferred that the site compound was not in its car park.
Alternative compound in new station car park
The alternative was to put the compound over the road in the station car park which would cause extra traffic on the High Street.
Cllr Rumbelow said more information was needed before a decision could be made.
Ms Tilling offered to provide any more information that councillors wished.
“It is a bit of a chicken and egg situation with Waitrose. We cannot make a formal agreement with Waitrose unless we have an agreement in principle for the meadow. We are trying to keep both going together.”
‘Council in a difficult position’
Cllr Ian Smith said the council was in a difficult position. They had to consider the desire to protect the environment alongside the wish of residents to have access to have a rail service that has the capacity to meet their demands.
Greater use of the railway would encourage fewer car journeys.
He said councillors should note that Network Rail had employed a fully professional team to oversee the project.
“There is an assurance that every effort will be made to return the site (Hempstead Meadows) to its original condition. That will encourage the return of any flora and fauna that has been disrupted,” he said.
Councillors need to balance the issues, he said.
Cllr John Collins said hardly a mention had been made of the residents of Mill Lane, notably Millington Court had been made.
“He said: “It would appear that they are right on top of the work that is going to go ahead with deliveries morning, noon and night.”
Millington Court residents include both disabled and the elderly and asked what abatement measures for noise and vibration were to be taken. He also asked if a public meeting for residents had taken place.
Ms Tilling said they had not had a “specific meeting” with the residents but are “aware that they are there”.
No noisy platform works at night
She said there would be different points in the construction period. There would be some works at night.
Noisy activities such as piling would not take place at night.
“The platform extension has to be where it is and we will reduce the impact as far as we can. We will need to work closely with them,” she said.
“No matter what we do or how far we go to minimise the impact, generally speaking any departure from the day to day for people is a change to their routine and is generally not welcomed. We want to reduce the impact as far as we can,” Ms Tilling said.
Cllr Molesworth Edwards returned to the subject of the “turn left” from River Way. He said he assumed the lorries would be eight-wheelers which would have to go on to the other carriageway to get out.
The lorries back wheels were also likely to go across the pavement and churn it up, making it difficult, particularly for disabled people.
Cllr Whittaker said: “It touches on a lot of people and feelings are running high. As a council we have a generalised duty of care to the people of the town but we have a statutory duty of care to the nature reserve. We have to protect it and enhance it. That is the law.”
Councillors agree to make decision at full council meeting
After some discussion, a motion to refuse Network Rail’s application to use the nature reserve was lost by four votes to two.
It was then agreed a special full council meeting should be held so that all councillors could attend to speak and vote on the issue.
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