Local action groups for the Ashford-Bexhill railway line have welcomed plans outlined by Network Rail for extending the HS1 service (currently operating between London St Pancras and Ashford) along the Marshlink line. This will require the electrification of the Marshlink line, remodelling of the track west of Ashford station and the extension of the passing loop at Rye. The initial plan is to run six-car Javelins hourly between Bexhill and Ashford, stopping at Rye, Hastings and Bexhill, with the smaller rural stations continuing to be served by electric trains. Still undecided are options for electrification by means of a third rail or overhead wiring.
A recent statement from the East Sussex Rail Alliance (ESRA) highlighted the sound business case for upgrading this route: both alternative lines from Hastings to London (whether via Tonbridge or Haywards Heath) are at full capacity at their northern ends. The tunnel restrictions on the Tonbridge route mean it would cost hundreds of millions of pounds to improve the track and achieve minimal time savings. The Haywards Heath line work would involve a detour with an average speed in the 30mph range.
So a direct service of 55 minutes from Rye to London St Pancras (68 minutes from Hastings and 78 minutes from Bexhill) would be a game-changer, says ESRA. More important still are the advantages for the local economy. Hastings, as a regeneration area, needs to plug in to the development potential of the Thames Gateway and the estimated cost of this upgrade at under £150m makes it a worthwhile proposition, winning the full support of local MP Amber Rudd. In addition Rye’s tourist economy could expect to be significantly improved.
Stuart Harland, the chairman of Marshlink Action Group, is encouraged by the retention of Govia and Southern Railways as continuing franchisees of the local rail network. “A period of enormous change is in prospect”, he said, ”with a considerable amount of work required to ensure that we get the HS1 service along the Marshlink route. We look forward to readdressing with the same operating team those service improvements we have been seeking for a long time. But, if the HS1 project is approved (as we hope and are working towards), we will have to live with the current diesel service for some years, with an ever-ageing fleet and continuing pressure on servicing issues and overcrowding.”
As a sign of things to come Network Rail have just installed barriers on the Winchelsea level crossing, the scene of a tragic accident in recent years.
Artist’s impression of a Javelin at Hastings Station by Railfuture member Mike Turner