Two town councillors were highly critical of the £150million plan to upgrade the Marshlink rail line between Ashford and Hastings at a full town council meeting on Monday.
Network Rail’s plans would see the line electrified and linked at Ashford to the 140mph HS1 track to St Pancras. The Southern High Speed Javelin Service could then travel at a maximum line speed of 90mph between Bexhill and Ashford, cutting the journey time from Rye to London to less than an hour. Passengers would no longer need to change trains at Ashford to travel into the capital as they do at present. Southern Trains already runs a similar service between London and towns on the Kent Coast.
The proposals are championed by Hastings and Rye MP Amber Rudd, who is seeking to have the projected start date of 2019, dependent on funding agreements, brought forward to 2017.
However, Cllr Ian Potter proposed a motion asking for the council not to support the proposed new Javelin service, but if the proposed service did stop at Rye then he asked that they support it. Initially, this statement caused some confusion among councillors and Potter was asked to clarify what he meant. He replied by telling them that: “It can take away not much from a journey from Rye to London, and do you honestly think that you will get a decent, or as good a train service with that link running to London, as you get now? If so I think you are misguided. Do you honestly think that at times you will get two trains per hour? No! If they stop in Rye, will they all stop in Rye? No!”
John Howlett, speaking from the public gallery immediately challenged these assumptions and told the council: “Obviously, it is a slow speed line, exactly the same as the line through Canterbury and the HS1 that goes down to Dover, and both those lines have created a great improvement to the towns they serve. The twice-hourly service will continue, the line will be electrified so we will get better trains running through to Brighton and there will be later trains in the evening. I mean, I can’t see what Cllr Potter has got against it, apart from his usual prejudice about anything that is futuristic.”
Anthony Kimber reminded the meeting that many of those taking part in the Neighbourhood Plan had expressed support for the proposals and that the council should take account of this before deciding to vote against the new service.
Cllr Mike Boyd urged councillors to treat the proposals with caution: “If we are not careful, with all due respect to those who really do want this to happen, we run a risk of creating another commuter town where one is not actually really necessary. There are obviously a lot of people who would welcome this link to London, to cut how many minutes off the journey? Only seven minutes, is that right?”
At this point he was corrected by Howlett, who told him it would actually save 25 minutes off the journey time.
Boyd continued: “Get an earlier train and save us £150 million pounds. If people really do want to get to London a little bit earlier, perhaps they would like to get an earlier train and save the country and the people locally a great deal of money. It will divide the town. I am not wholly against it, please don’t get me wrong, I am just pointing out these things, that people haven’t necessarily considered entirely before coming to these great conclusions that the town actually needs it.
“Of course, there is a percentage of the town that will need it, and there are quite a percentage of people who live quite nicely in London who will suddenly move here and use this place as yet another commuter town, which it is not at the moment. And, furthermore, the upgrading of the line, which will be upgraded quite enormously to take an electric service, my understanding was always that single electric services were not permitted. They must have made an exception in this case. They should really double the track.
“Consider that by doubling the track as it was 30 years ago and electrifying it will change yet again the character of the town. The fences etc that are involved with all manner of electrifying railway lines will change the face of the town. It will also, in my opinion, possibly divide the town rather to one side of the railway and the other side of the railway even more. And I think that all of these things, without wishing to pooh-pooh the idea, will obviously bring considerable advantages to the town and to the businesses and tourism and all these things, but it will also create another commuter town that brings Rye a little bit closer to London, which is essentially the whole point of it.”
A debate arose during the meeting about whether or not the proposed upgrade would actually lead to a restoration of the double track, with councillors expressing a variety of opinions on the matter. No definitive view was forthcoming, with Rother District Councillor Sam Souster reporting that he had been assured by Network Rail that would not be the case, while East Sussex County Councillor Keith Glazier told the meeting that he was sure the track would be dualled. Mayor Bernie Fiddimore and Cllr Heidi Foster both suggested the council should secure further information before coming to a conclusion.
Clr Glazier went on to sum up his view of the proposals: “I understand the concerns that you have, and the people of Rye need to make theirs known. We were having a debate earlier about why is Ashford so much better than Rye. You may have noticed a few houses go up in Ashford recently – they all add to the coffers of the town council – unless Rye grows, you are going to have that issue.
“But let’s be absolutely clear about why this has come about in the first place – and I have to say, I am sorry to say, it is very little to do with Rye. This is to do with the fact that if you want a fast train from Hasting into London it can’t be achieved on the current line. The engineering around the tunnels would be too enormous to knock off what would be three or four minutes. This way a train from Hastings to London in 68 minutes is something we should all aspire to . . .
“I think it will do the people of Rye and the surrounding area enormous good. It is a long way away, there will be an awful lot of consultation and talking between now and 2017, but I think the fundamental bit about do you want Rye to grow, do you want it to be part of the modern age or do you actually want to preserve it in aspic is something that the town council needs to take a view on. But, as I say, on that summit the Secretary of State and the head of Network Rail assured us if that the business case can be proven it will go ahead.”
Cllr Jonathan Breeds, the Deputy Mayor, then expressed his concerns over the problems over the lack of affordable housing in Rye. He raised the possibility that the arrival of the new train service would lead to a further escalation of house prices in the area, effectively pricing out those who had grown up locally and needed to get on the property ladder.
The debate was concluded when Ian Potter withdrew his proposal and the council voted in favour of supporting the new train service stopping in Rye.