A rail replacement ride round

Sunday 27th February 2022

In last Tuesday’s blog about the Brighton Main Line blockade I mentioned a rail replacement bus was providing a direct journey between Seaford and Uckfield. As that seemed an unusual link – something not normally possible either by bus or train without changes and extended journey times – I thought I’d give it a try and take an interesting circular tour across border territory between East and West Sussex.

First off, I travelled from my local station Hassocks down to Brighton before catching the train over to Seaford. I took the 08:32 departure which for old times sake turned out to be a Brighton & Hove Bus Company operated journey.

We made good progress until we approached the A23/A27 junction just north of Patcham at 08:39. It was badly congested, partly due to carriageway works on the A27 at Falmer which has reduced that road to one lane with consequential miles of tail backs at peak times.

We eventually crawled through the junction only to join a slow moving queue of southbound traffic through Patcham heading into Brighton. Fortunately once we reached the Carden Avenue junction (1.25 miles had taken 13 minutes, an average speed of 5.8 mph) a bus lane whisked us down to the bus stop for Preston Park station which we reached eight minutes late at 08:54. Traffic was slow moving past Preston Park itself due to some kind of police incident and then we joined a long queue of right turning traffic at Preston Circus – it would have been quicker to continue through London Road and use Cheapside to access the station, but we stuck it out arriving at the rear of the station 21 minutes late at 09:17.

You get dropped at the far end of the parked up buses and coaches furthest away from the station, which isn’t very convenient, but as I had plenty of time before my train for Seaford I wasn’t worried but I felt sorry for people needing to be at their place of work or education for 09:00 – most of the 20 passengers on board looked like college students.

There’s a half hourly service between Brighton and Seaford and I’d planned to catch the 09:41 departure. It’s a shame the five-trains-an-hour frequency between Brighton and Lewes doesn’t give more of an even timetable.

Note the “nudge” effect of highlighting the train via Littlehampton and no mention of the frequent direct non-stop bus to Three Bridges, which is quicker. Not very helpful.

Instead there’s a 09:31 to Hastings, a 09:36 to Ore and then the 09:41 to Seaford. Ironically the first train (for Hastings) was only four coaches so was very crowded especially with students bound for Falmer many of whom had transferred from the 09:26 arrival from Bognor Regis. I caught the eight coach 09:36 to Ore as far as Lewes and switched to the train behind for Seaford there. Not surprisingly both trains had few passengers with the 09:31 having done all the ‘heavy lifting’.

Half an hour later there’s no 01 Hastings departure while the 06 only runs as far as Eastbourne with the 11 going to Seaford. I guess the timetable reflects stopping patterns which are different further down the line.

Arriving into Seaford at 10:21 gave me a good connection for the hourly bus to Uckfield. This left at 35 minutes past each hour between 06:35 and 10:35 with an extra initial departure at 06:05. Southbound the first bus left Uckfield at 07:35 then hourly until 10:35. There were no daytime departures but the service got going again at 16:35 with hourly departures from both ends of the route until 20:35. You had to know where to find the timetable as it was hidden in the depths of Southern’s website where all the other journeys between Ashford, Hastings, Eastbourne, Seaford and Lewes to Brighton, Gatwick Airport, East Croydon and London are shown in one complex tabulation.

Being a Monday to Friday only service for the nine day blockade, it’s now all over and done with.

A scheduled journey time of 48 minutes was allocated making for an arrival into Uckfield at 23 minutes past the hour which was handy for the hourly train departing from there at 33 minutes past the hour. That 06:05 bus from Seaford connected into a peak hour extra from Uckfield at 07:03 arriving into East Croydon at 08:07 and London Bridge at 08:23 making for a 2 hour and 2 minute journey time from Seaford to East Croydon.

Coincidentally if passengers had eschewed that option and instead taken a train from Seaford to Lewes then a replacement bus to Three Bridges and a train to East Croydon, they could have done the journey in pretty much the same time – the 06:25 from Seaford arrives Lewes at 06:42 where a replacement bus left at 06:56 reaching Three Bridges at 08:00 from where there’s an 08:05 Southern train to East Croydon arriving 08:24 or an 08:08 Thameslink train arriving East Croydon at 08:30 giving an approximate 2 hour journey time. Still, it’s all academic now as the blockade will be all over tomorrow morning and Seaford passengers can once again change from that 06:25 train at Lewes and arrive into East Croydon at 07:38 taking 73 minutes.

I wasn’t expecting many, if any, passengers to take the bus with me to Uckfield so was surprised to see a passenger already sitting on the bus as I came out of the station at Seaford and finding it parked up on layover.

No one else joined us and we left a couple of minutes early at 10:33, passing by the bus stop for Bishopstone also two minutes early at 10:36 and leaving Newhaven Town four minutes early at 10:41. I’m pretty sure those few minutes ahead of schedule didn’t result in any would be passengers being left behind. We made even better progress along the A26 skirting Lewes through the Cuilfail Tunnel and on to Uckfield. We passed a double decker heading south on the 10:35 Uckfield to Seaford journey which had no passengers on board.

We arrived at the bus stop for Uckfield station 14 minutes ahead of schedule at 11:09 giving plenty of time for my fellow passenger to wait for the 11:33 train to East Croydon and London.

I decided to head off and enjoy a couple of delightful bus journeys through the scenic Ashdown Forest to complete my circular tour.

Compass Bus operated route 261 provides six return journeys a day on a two-hourly frequency on Mondays to Fridays.

It’s a lovely ride through Maresfield and Nutley along the A22 before passing through Ashdown Forest. Four of the daytime journeys divert via Coleman’s Hatch taking in even more of the Forest and I was surprised we picked a passenger up close to the rather posh Ashdown Park Hotel and Country Club on that road. There were only four of us on the bus, so he helped to boost the numbers a bit.

I decided not to continue beyond Forest Row into East Grinstead but to alight at the former and take a short break before heading home on another delightful bus route – the Metrobus operated route 270 which runs hourly on Mondays to Saturdays and four journeys on Sundays between East Grinstead and Brighton.

This route also traverses through Ashdown Forest but on the A22 and then the A275 road towards Lewes as far as Danehill where it turns off to serve Horsted Keynes before continuing via Lindfield, Haywards Heath, Burgess Hill and Hassocks. North of Danehill the route deviates around Chelwood Gate and at weekends buses divert to serve Horsted Keynes station on the preserved Bluebell Railway.

We had between six and nine passengers on as we travelled south from Forest Row to Haywards Heath with about the same number getting on and off along the route but from Haywards Heath numbers increased to around 20 on the bus with quite a few ons and offs as we continued southwards.

Arriving back in Hassocks completed my circuit having experienced a congestion delayed rail replacement bus, a trio of trains within ten minutes, a sparsely loaded rail replacement bus that wasn’t really replacing anything, a lightly loaded inter-urban bus through a forest and a much better loaded inter-urban bus back through the same forest.

And while I was swanning around Sussex on Thursday, Network Rail’s orange army of staff and contractors were still hard at work carrying out the huge programme of engineering works and maintenance on the Brighton Main Line. The PR guys for Network Rail’s Kent and Sussex area posted a fascinating clip on social media a few days ago showing the constriction of the underpass built during the blockade just north of Hassocks at Woodside crossing for the public footpath. I hadn’t really thought about how this was going to be constructed so was amazed to see in this clip how it involved completely severing the railway embankment and track to then insert the tunnel framework and fill the embankment in again.

Quite incredible. I look forward to taking a walk underneath when the footpath reopens.

The underpass now in place

Roger French

Blogging timetable: 06:00 TThSSu.

Next blog, Tuesday 1st March 2022: Life after Arriva in Guildford.

8 thoughts on “A rail replacement ride round

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  1. Interesting that the little-advertised Seaford-Uckfield ‘Rail Replacement’ buses are timed to make the journey in 48 minutes; Google Maps says 28-45 minutes for a car journey; by train+bus the times are 70-75 minutes, of which only 41 are actually on the train or bus. As usual, the strange one-way system separating Lewes Station from the regular bus network seems an unresolvable problem!

    I remember that, back in early privatisation days, Connex bravely tried an ‘integrated’ bus service connecting Uckfield and Lewes stations; sadly it didn’t last long – is there any inside information about why? maybe poor timetabling, lack of publicity and no real-time passenger information at that time, or perhaps it was a token service offered to win the franchise…? When I used it it had the air of being unloved by the management.

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  2. Although it’s irrelevant now, you may be interested in knowing about the apparent reason why Southern services were diverted to London London Bridge, a few weeks ago on weekdays, even though Southern didn’t say this was due to scheduled engineering work.

    I was talking to a railway employee in the pub and he told me that during that time some parts of the line between East Croydon and London Victoria only had two tracks, instead of four, open as there was resignalling work and junction renewal going on. On top of that a lot of London area staff were sick or isolating due to Covid. Well, Southern could just have said that!

    Also I passed through Lewes on Wednesday 23th during the Brighton line closure. I noticed that fast coaches were operating from Lewes non-stop to Three Bridges. As mentioned these don’t seem to be shown on the timetables or journey-planners meaning that potential passengers are not aware that their journey times would be delayed, but not by much, as I assume they take the dual carriageway, all the way along the A27 and A23.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Nonsense. The four lines were always available. The reason the trains were diverted to London Bridge was because there weren’t enough drivers to operate the service intended, and there wasn’t enough time to replan the service to match the available drivers.
      The only alternative was to roll over the Christmas blockade timetable

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Fascinating, Roger, many thanks! As I live near Battle I shall now explore the two routes over Ashdown Forest with my Bus Pass. I did not even realise that there was a direct bus between East Grinstead and Brighton – presumably a relic from the rail services closed in the 1960s!

    Liked by 1 person

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