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Brighton Line Electric Train Services

This article was written by Bryan Rayner and appeared over two parts in the February and April 1983 editions of Live Rail under the title "Every Hour, On the Hour, In the Hour". Sub-titled "A Half Century Of Brighton Electrics" seven sample years Brighton line timetables are overviewed, both with regard to the regular interval off peak pattern, and the very important London peak business traffic. Electrification of the London to Brighton line in many ways set the Southern Electric standard for following schemes. The 1930s 2Nol, 4Lav, 2Bil and 2Hal trains devised for the semi-fast and slow services are described in the article on SR semi-fast and slow units.

Regular interval electric multiple-unit train services between London, Brighton and Worthing began on 1st January 1933 - exactly fifty years ago. Technical questions relating to electrification have been covered elsewhere, so here we take a look at the aspect from which the famous slogan that forms the title of this article was derived Sir Herbert Walker's even-interval timetable.

This article compares the patterns of service from electrification to the present day, by examining the 'peak', 'off-peak' and weekend schedules. Seven sample years (1935, 1941,1952, 1959, 1967, 1974 and 1982) have been chosen, and between them cover the period more than adequately, showing well the changes that have taken place. For clarity, the 24-hour clock is used throughout even though it was not adopted as standard by British Railways until the summer of 1964.

As is well known, the initial standard electric service in 1933 comprised six trains each way per hour, essentially as follows:

Down services

minutes past each hour Hours of operation Origin


Pattern Headcode
00 09-24 Victoria Brighton non-stop 4
00 08-22 London Bridge Brighton semi-fast (Quarry) 5
16 06-22 London Bridge Brighton slow 15
25 09-22 Victoria West Worthing fast 16
28 09-22 Victoria Brighton semi-fast 12
46 06-22 Victoria Brighton slow 14

Up services

minutes past each hour Hours of operation Origin Destination Pattern Headcode
08 11-22 Brighton Victoria semi-fast 12
25 10-22 Brighton Victoria non-stop 4
28 08-22 Brighton Victoria slow 14
30 08-20 West Worthing Victoria fast 16
38 10-21 Brighton London Bridge semi-fast (Quarry) 5
58 06-21 Brighton London Bridge slow 15

1100, 1500 and 1900 non-stop from Victoria and 1325, 1725 and 2125 from Brighton were the Brighton Belle.

Early morning and late evening services varied somewhat from the "standard" hour shown above. The 0800 London Bridge to Brighton, for example, started at 0758, and attached a portion from Victoria (dep. 0800) at East Croydon. There was a semi-fast at 0827 from London Bridge to Brighton, via the Quarry line. The first stopping train from London Bridge was at 0525, and the last two (at 2315 and 2346 from Victoria) ran only to Three Bridges. Variations in the up service were limited to the early. stopping trains which were at 0558 to Victoria, and 0628 and 0728 to London Bridge. Other variations were to provide for the "peak" services from the coast to London in the morning, and return in the evening, which are dealt with separately.

The pattern of services referred to above was applicable to all weekdays (Mondays-Saturdays). On Sundays there were a small number of reductions, viz:

  • services began an hour or, so later, and finished a little earlier;
  • the semi-fast London Bridge trains did not run;
  • only six down and five up through expresses ran to and from West Worthing (morning and evening);
  • the early afternoon Brighton Belle trips (1325 up, 1500 down) were replaced by ordinary trains.

By 1941, electrification of former LBSCR routes had been completed (as far as it has been to date) by extension of the third rail to Eastbourne and Hastings (in 1935) and to Bognor Regis and Portsmouth Harbour (in 1938). However, these routes are outside the scope of this article. On the Brighton line itself, as elsewhere, wartime conditions had meant that services had been severely reduced.

Slow and semi-fast Victoria trains were the only ones largely unaffected, but they ceased much earlier in the evening. The last slows had left London by 2100, and from Brighton left at 1958 (to London Bridge), 2028 and 2128 (to Victoria). The last up semi-fast was as early as 18 08; there was no down semi-fast after the evening peak, except for one late train at 2248 (which stopped at Purley, Coulsdon South and Merstham additionally).

Semi-fast London Bridge, "non-stop" Victoria, and through Worthing services (by now, of course, running to and from Littlehampton) were very restricted, numbering three, three and one (down) and two, one and two (up) only. The "non-stops" actually stopped at East Croydon and Haywards Heath. A notable feature was a 1612 SX London Bridge to Littlehampton, for City workers returning home early because of blackout restrictions.

On Sundays, services were similarly restricted, with only six down and four up slow London Bridge / Brighton trains, in the morning and evening. An evening gap in the up direction was filled by an 1845 Eastbourne to London Bridge, which called at all stations from Horley to Purley; this train remained a feature of the timetable right up to 1967. There were only two "fast" Victoria/Brighton trains in each direction, and three each way between Victoria and Littlehampton.

The 1950s will probably be seen as the zenith of Brighton line train services (unless there is a rejuvenation in the future) as there was a fast-growing market for travel in the area, and car-ownership had not reached the relatively high level of today. Basic off-peak services soon settled down after the war to a level very similar to that of today, but were augmented by seasonal reliefs for day excursion and holiday traffic (often formed of suburban stock). Summer weekends were by far the busiest days, with a full morning and mid-day business service still in operation on Saturday as well as holiday traffic; however, the very heavy Sunday seaside excursion traffic taxed operating resources as well. The density of the Monday-Friday business peak was not then as great as it is now, so stock and crew utilisation was much more evenly spread, with consequent greater efficiency.

To look in detail at the 1952 service, the most obvious changes from the pre-war period are the severe reduction of the London Bridge semi-fasts to only three down and one up (SX), and non-reinstatement of a number of through Littlehampton services, Most notably, apart from a number of gaps in the afternoon, there were no 2025, 2125 or 2225 departures from Victoria; instead a portion for Littlehampton was detached from the 2245 Victoria to Ore. This also in part replaced a pre-war 2340 Victoria to Brighton and West Worthing (divided at Haywards Heath), which did not reappear; a last connection for the West Coast was provided by the 0108 Brighton to West Worthing, connecting out of the midnight from Victoria. This called (and split for Ore) at Haywards Heath in order to serve that station in place of the 2340.

The regular pre-war pattern of Sunday services was not (and has never subsequently) been restored. Non-stop Victoria/Brighton trains ran hourly from 0900 to 2300, except at 1300, 1500, 1600 and 1700; in the reverse direction the morning and afternoon service was irregular, but there were hourly trains from 1625 to 2125. There were seven down and six up Littlehampton trains. Stopping and semi-fast Victoria trains provided the basic all-day service, augmented by slows to and from London Bridge in the morning and evening. The last up slow at 2228 from Brighton was semi-fast from Three Bridges, and detached a portion for London Bridge at East Croydon.

By 1959, the former half-hourly local service between Three Bridges and Bognor Regis (which had been introduced in 1938) was running through to and from Victoria to provide an improved service for Gatwick Airport. Otherwise there was little change to the basic service on weekdays or Sundays, but there was a substantial number of relief workings by suburban stock. These were presumably to cater for half-day excursionists, for whom bargain fares were offered. On Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays there were the following to Brighton:

1046 from Redhill
1053 from Forest Hill
1101 from Clapham Junction
1103 from Streatham Hill
1110 from London Bridge

Oddly, return reliefs ran Mondays to Fridays as follows:

1927 and 2040 to London Bridge
1945 and 2115 to Streatham Hill
2054 to Victoria

There was an amazing train formed of suburban stock on Summer Saturdays, at 0605 from London Bridge to Brighton, calling only at East Croydon, Three Bridges and Haywards Heath. The heaviest programme, however, was of return trains on Sunday evenings as follows:

1746, 1845, 1904, 1954, 2035 and 2054 to Victoria
1815, 1854 and 2112 to London Bridge
2044 to Streatham Hill

Of these, the 1746, 1854, 1904, 1954 and 2054 were semi-fast, and the 1845, 2035, 2044 and 2112 were first stop East Croydon.

Great play was made of the timetable introduced in 1967, although few significant alterations were in fact made. The 6Pul and 6Pan stock introduced for the express services in the 'thirties was withdrawn in 1965, and replaced by new 4Cig and 4Big units. These had buffets instead of Pullman cars, but the all-Pullman Brighton Belle continued to run until 1972. New stock allowed schedules to be accelerated with a 55 minute timing to Brighton. This did not last, and all timings have since been eased out.

Gaps in the fast Littlehampton schedules were at last filled, giving an hourly service all day, including a 2025 down; a West Worthing portion on the 2128 Victoria to Brighton also filled a gap in the evening. There were also some extra early down trains; the 0641 Norwood Junction to Brighton had run unadvertised for some years, there was a new Victoria semi-fast at 0728, an 0810 London bridge to Brighton (also semi-fast) and a fast to Littlehampton at 0822 from London Bridge (otherwise largely as standard).

Train catering reached a peak, with buffet or griddle service on some of these early trains, and late trains from which Pullman staff had been withdrawn in the 1950s. Sunday services were largely as before, except for the diversion of such slow London Bridge trains as ran via Tulse HiII and Crystal Palace in place of local services which had been withdrawn. Sunday reliefs to and from Brighton comprised only three down and four up.

Over the ensuing ten years there were few changes. Additional services between Victoria and Gatwick Airport were introduced in the mid and late 1960's, building up gradually. By 1974 there was a basic 15 minute interval service all day (0600 to midnight) made up of the half-hourly Mid-Sussex line stopping trains already referred to (which included an Airport portion) and a separate half-hourly service calling at East Croydon and Gatwick Airport only. There were also hourly trains all night, and from 1974 these were extended to Brighton (only alternately during the winter).

When the Brighton Belle was withdrawn in 1972, it was replaced by an ordinary train, enabling certain other trains that closely preceded or followed it to be altered or withdrawn too. For example, a 2306 Victoria to Brighton was diverted to Horsham to fill a gap in the service, and replaced by a 2328 to Brighton.

What was, once again, hailed as a "revolutionary new timetable" was introduced in 1978. In fact it was nowhere near as revolutionary as was claimed. There was still an hourly fast Littlehampton train at xx25; the two Gatwick Airport/Mid Sussex trains continued unaltered; there was a Brighton semi-fast (at xx40), although it did not serve Redhill. The Brighton fast service moved back to xx10 (to provide an even interval with the semi-fast) and - horror of horrors - stopped at East Croydon. A reversion to pre-war practice involved the "midnight" from Victoria (now 2352) running via Brighton to Ore, doing away with the split at Haywards Heath.

The only real changes were to the pattern of slow trains. The former Gatwick Airport services (xx18, xx48) were extended to Brighton, and the slow Brighton trains cut back to terminate at Three Bridges. The former (now xx20, xx50) called at Clapham Junction, East Croydon and Redhill before Gatwick Airport (where a portion was detached), then served all stations. Of the latter, as before there was one from Victoria and one from London Bridge, but the latter ran via Crystal Palace.

By 1982, apart from starting times being brought forward, the Three Bridges trains had been revised to run only to and from Redhill (on Mondays to Fridays) and also so that all ran to/from London Bridge except in peak periods. Worse though, were the variations in services introduced between 1979 and 1981. To allow the Brighton stopping trains to become a Gatwick Airport service (calling only at Clapham Junction) at weekends, the slow Three Bridges services were extended through to Brighton.

By 1982 the 1978 service had become a joke, with reductions on weekday evenings to effect economies, and Saturday and Sunday timetables that have little resemblance to each other or the Monday to Friday service. About the only consistent aspect was the through Littlehampton service, hourly from 0923 to 2023 down, 0915 to 2015 up on all days of the week (except that exact times varied a little at weekends).

On Saturdays the slow Brighton trains disappeared entirely, being replaced by an unprecedented (and very unreliable) half-hourly service between Charing Cross and Redhill, and an hourly shuttle between Gatwick Airport and Brighton. The interval below Gatwick was maintained by the semi-fast, which called at all stations thence to Brighton. One of the "economies" was the closure of Earlswood and Salford stations except during Monday to Friday peak hours, so there was no need for a stopping service at those stations. Horley was served by the Victoria/Gatwick/Horsham/Bognor Regis line trains.

On Sundays, however, there were slow Brighton trains, hourly from London Bridge, calling at all open stations except South Croydon. These there was provided a regular through service between Brockley and Balcombe, Honor Oak Park and Hassocks, etc. Fast Brighton services ran only in the evenings, save for a few morning trains in the summer only. Therefore. semi-fasts ran to and from Victoria all day, instead of London Bridge as most did on other days.

Overall, the timetable variations applicable at different times of day, and on different days of the week, can only have served to create interminable confusion among staff and passengers alike. To compound the difficulties, weekend services were subjected to major changes to allow for very heavy programmes of engineering work associated with such projects as the redevelopment of Victoria and Gatwick Airport stations and the Victoria Area and Brighton Line resignalling schemes. What would Sir Herbert Walker have thought?

It remains to consider the augmented services provided for the morning and evening peak periods. Until the late 1960s there were "business" trains on Saturday mornings and lunchtimes as well as Monday to Friday mornings and evenings. At no time, however, was the Saturday service as intensive as that on other weekdays, and for simplicity only the 'SX' service has been considered here.

Up Morning Peak (Fast Trains)

Train 1935 1941 1952 1959 1967 1974 1982
0608 Brighton-Victoria - - - - - # #
0625 Brighton-London Bridge # # # # # # 1
0644 Littlehampton-London Bridge 2 # # # # # #
0645 West Worthing-Victoria - - - - # # 3
0650 West Worthing-London Bridge - - # # # # #
0708 Brighton-London Bridge 4 4 # # # # #
0711 Brighton-Victoria 4 4 # # # # #
0719 Brighton-London Bridge # 5 1 1 1 1 1
0737 Littlehampton-London Bridge 2 # # # # # #
0738 Brighton-London Bridge - - - # # # #
0740 Brighton-Victoria # # # # # # #
0745 Brighton-London Bridge - # # # # 6 2
0803 Hove-London Bridge - - - - # # 7
0805 Brighton-Victoria # # # # # # #
0806 Brighton-Victoria - - - # # # 3
0807 Hove-Victoria - # # 3 3 3 -
0809 Littlehampton-London Bridge 2 # # # # 1 1
0820 Brighton-London Bridge # # # # # # -
0835 Brighton-Victoria # # # # # # #
0845 Brighton-London Bridge # # # # # # -
0855 Brighton-Victoria # # # # # # #
0915 Brighton-London Bridge # # # # # 1 -

# indicates train included in timetable

  1. Terminates at West Worthing
  2. Semi-fast train
  3. Portion of Eastbourne train
  4. Run as combined train to Haywards Heath

Table 2 above provides a similar summary of the evening peak. Again, the trend towards an increase in the total number of trains will be noticed, and also the fact that many trains have retained their identity right from electrification to the present day. The proportion is not as great as in the morning peak though. The trend in recent years towards earlier travel home will be seen, and this alone is responsible for the disappearance of some long-standing trains in the latest timetables.

Overall, a number of conclusions may be drawn. First, having established a regular timetable, the best way to attract and retain traffic is to maintain that regular timetable as far as possible. Minor adjustments to meet particular developments, including (for example) the 1967 accelerations, are acceptable and indeed desirable, but wholesale carve-ups for their own sake do no good at all. On the other hand, the Brighton line today is faced with one of its biggest headaches - and challenges - ever how to cope with, and profit from, the growth of Gatwick Airport. Whether - and if it is done, how - success will be achieved will be one of the most fascinating subjects to observe over the next few years.

Today (1999) the Brighton line is served by three different train operating companies - Gatwick Express (every 15 minutes Victoria - Gatwick Airport), Thameslink (four semi - fast trains per hour via Farringdon to Brighton) and Connex South Central (lineal descendant of the services described above.) CSC now runs two "Connex Express" trains each hour between Victoria and Brighton in addition to semi-fast and slow services, and of course, the important peak hours business traffic. Today, Gatwick Airport is the busiest, in terms on quantity of services, non-junction non-terminal passenger station on the UK rail network.