Posted 12th October 2015 | 9 Comments

Level crossing upgrade hits deadlock

A BID to upgrade the gates at a 'high risk' level crossing in Sussex has fallen foul of planning laws, and Network Rail has written a letter of apology to local residents who have been protesting that the road across the railway has now been closed for several weeks.

The gates at Plumpton between Burgess Hill and Lewes are of the traditional pattern, and controlled from the box alongside. But Network Rail said that "despite its local popularity and heritage, independent risk assessments had identified that the level crossing posed a high safety risk, as well as being increasingly difficult to operate and maintain".

They now need to be replaced with modern lifting barriers which could in future be controlled by the new Rail Operating Centre at Three Bridges. The upgrade is costing £2 million.

But although Network Rail sought planning permission to upgrade the crossing in June and then closed the road on 25 September, Lewes District Council refused planning permission a few days later, saying that the modernisation would cause 'substantial harm to the significance of the signal box'.

Had the work gone ahead, the road would have reopened today (12 October). Meanwhile 600 people have signed a petition calling for the crossing to be restored, because while it is blocked local motorists are forced to take a diversion of some 10km.

Plumpton is one of the several hundred remaining mechanical boxes which are set to be replaced by the national network of 12 Rail Operating Centres. Some of the most important of these old boxes are destined to be preserved by heritage railways or museums, and the Victorian-era gates at Plumpton are set to be presented to the East Kent Railway Trust.

Network Rail area director Steve Knight admitted that NR had been wrong to assume that planning permission would be granted, but said: "We sincerely apologise to local residents for the disruption caused by the current closure of Plumpton level crossing.  No level crossing is entirely safe or risk free, but we know we have to find a safer long term solution for the level crossing at Plumpton. We cannot stand idly by and allow an outdated, high-risk crossing to remain in use when we know we can make it much safer.”

In its letter to residents, Network Rail warned that an early solution seems unlikely. It explained: "We are working round the clock to try and find a temporary safe solution for the level crossing that is acceptable to residents and the local community and meets our obligations. However, this will take us some time and it is likely that the current diversionary routes will remain for at least the next three months."

Reader Comments:

Views expressed in submitted comments are that of the author, and not necessarily shared by Railnews.

  • Neil Palmer, Waterloo

    One has to wonder whether Network Rail is really that stupid (see comment from Hugh Gillies-Smith) or was this done intentionally with the sole purpose of closing the crossing permanently ?

  • Hugh Gillies-Smith, South Milford

    Why have they gone for Planning consent on an operational asset such as this? Have they no people working for them anymore who are aware of the Statutory Powers afforded to railways?

  • Hugh Collins, Lewes

    I suggest that Network Rail closes the crossing indefinitely. The signal box could then be dismantled when Three Bridges is ready to take on the signalling. No planning issue then - the crossing and box will be gone! I also suggest that Network Rail stops consulting local councils on such trivial matters. The railway is being properly modernised all over the country without such trivial planning issues. There's a general policy to reduce the number of level crossings for safety reasons. This is a good example of where to start.

  • Derek Rimington, Brighton

    Local burocracy gone mad.
    It has been stated locally that work had already started, if the crossing were to be reopened again now, presumably reinstatement would be necessary, and who should pay for that?
    The best thing is to just leave the crossing closed to road traffic until Lewes District Council come to their senses.
    I do not know how long a Plumpton kilometre is, but I make it a journey by car of seven ISO kilometres from one side of the crossing to the other, with many journeys not being lengthened at all.

    [Thank you for your useful information about the length of the diversions, which most reports were describing as 'six to seven miles' -- hence our 10km. I would imagine that the worst cases would get the most publicity!--Editor.]

  • Tony Lamdin, Morphett Vale

    Plumpton is between Wivelsfield and Lewes and not Burgess Hill railwaywise

    [In this case we were referring to general geography, not the railway map, but as far as the network is concerned you are right. Or should it be between Wivelsfield and Cooksbridge? Or Keymer Junction and Cooksbridge? Or Keymer Junction and Lewes?--Editor.]

  • Neil Palmer, Waterloo

    Honestly, yet another example of the abject stupidity of UK planning laws and the ability of every little self-important council or authority to delay changes on the railway - and the government wonders why Network Rail's costs are so high. It's because of government itself, on all levels.

    If the article is correct then it seems this has reached new heights of insanity as Lewes District Council is apparently not objecting to any physical changes to the signal box, of which their appear to be none, but to the idea of 'substantial harm to the significance of the signal box'. On what legal authority do they have the right to object to a change, and refuse permission, on the grounds of a change to the "significance" of a signal box? Surely they have overstepped their authority here. As 100andthirty says, this is all on railway land and the article states they are replacing the crossing gates and not making any changes to the signal box, so why does the local council even have any right to object, and why did they even need to be consulted? Is this just a case of Network Rail trying to be good neighbours and inform the local authority of changes, even though they have no legal requirement to do so? If so maybe they'll learn a lesson from this and not waste time in future looking for approval for something they already have the authority to do.

    Maybe Network Rail should offer to reopen the crossing immediately, if Lewes District Council sign a legally binding agreement to assume full responsibility for any damage, injury or death, or costs to compensate TOC's for delays caused by operational problems caused if the crossing is reopened with the current gates. Maybe that would smarten up these self-important little local authority dictators and remind them of their position near the bottom of the food chain, and of the legal limits of their authority, and teach them to stop trying to meddle in things they have no business sticking their noses into.

    [Our article is based on information from Network Rail. If NR is correct, so are we.--Editor.]

  • Rooky, Plumpton

    Network Rail sent residents a letter dated 9th October 2015. In it, NR state the crossing presented an unacceptable safety risk. This begs the question, 'how long were Network Rail aware of this unacceptable risk and did they tell the train operators who drive over the crossing?'. I'm sure the TUs would have a view on this.

  • Anonymous Widower, Dalston, London

    This is the sort of case that lawyers call a dripping roast. They must be rubbing their hands with glee.

    Therses are the sort of problems that should be decided by the Infrastructure Commission.

  • 100andthirty, Milton Keynes

    It must be an interesting issue as to whether planning permission is even needed, given that this is all, presumably on railway land

    [It is, but plenty of railway structures are listed, even so. Extreme examples were St Pancras and King's Cross in London, where I believe the upgrade work was inspected weekly by English Heritage because of the protected status of the buildings.--Editor]