Highspeed trains. There’s a lot of confusion about them. Will Southeastern’s domestic highspeed service really be coming to Rye, Hastings and Bexhill? I started researching. This is what I found. What follows is fact, not fiction.
Many readers will remember using the Marshlink service before 2004. These were the days of the “thumper”, the class 205 diesel units, already at least 40 years old, which shook and shuddered their way across the marshes and struggled up the notorious Ham Street bank, particularly in bad weather and the season of leaf fall.
We were lucky to have these trains. A proposal in 1970 suggested closing down the line altogether as it was uneconomic. A compromise was reached in 1979 when the double tracking was removed, leaving us with just a single line beyond Appledore except for the passing loop at Rye between the two level crossings.
In those days, if you were away from Rye for a while and returned by train from London it was always a shock to arrive on platform one at Ashford for the connection to Rye and find what looked like the oldest, dirtiest looking train on the network waiting for you. It was even worse when you climbed on board and saw the state of the interior, which was seemingly not only as dirty as the outside, but full of litter. I felt for the poor people arriving from the Continent on the sleek, glamorous-looking Eurostar, making their way on to Rye, when they were confronted with the reality of the English “local” train waiting for them at the far side of the station.
After 2004, of course, this all changed with the arrival of brand new trains which were magnificent by comparison, even if at first they did look strangely like tall green buses running on the railway track. But they were comfortable and generally clean, although after a while they proved to have some mechanical and electric problems. However, the Marshlink has once again started to look like an underfunded and neglected anachronism, the only line in the southern region other than Uckfield still served by diesel trains. So the sudden and unexpected public announcement on March 31 this year that not only electrification of the Marshlink, but also the provision of Southeastern Highspeed trains between Bexhill and St Pancras was being seriously considered by various organisations was greeted with a mixture of amazement, delight and also, inevitably, some scepticism.
The announcement was made by local MP Amber Rudd and Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin at a press conference in Hastings on March 31. The MP said: “During today’s rail summit we achieved an ‘absolute commitment’ from Network Rail to deliver HS1 in Hastings and Rye.” Patrick McLoughlin went on to add: “We are now seeing the biggest rail investment since the Victorian era and I look forward to working with Amber to continue to improve rail services in Hastings and Rye.”
Six months on from these bold announcements what progress has made made and what are the implications? Below are some of the questions commonly being asked around Rye:
What exactly is this project?
First, in its current form this is a proposal to electrify and modernise the Marshlink line. Secondly, a proposed link at Ashford International will connect this track directly to the existing HS1 line. HS1 is the dedicated highspeed track that runs from the Channel Tunnel to St Pancras, which carries Eurostar passenger trains, travelling at up to 180mph, as well as the 140mph Javelin trains from the Southeastern Highspeed domestic service. These Javelin trains, class 395, with their distinctive blue livery and “Bullet Train” styling, are built in Japan and then shipped to the UK. They run in configurations of six units and are currently the fastest trains on the entire UK network. Southeastern trains will purchase a number of new Javelin trains for this project, which will then be able to run directly between Bexhill and St Pancras. This means that passengers from the Marshlink boarding the trains at Bexhill, Hastings or Rye will no longer need to change trains at Ashford in order to get to and from London.
It is estimated that the total journey time on this new service between London and Hastings will be 68 minutes. Southeastern Highspeed has already established similar services to the Kent coast. However, the principal difference is that the tracks being used beyond the HS1 main line did not need electrifying and updating as this had already been done.
But a word of caution here. Despite the proposed changes the Marshlink will not itself become a highspeed line. In the parlance of the railway engineers it will remain a “classic” track with “classic” speed limits. The matter becomes confused because many people, including the politicians involved, refer to this as HS1 for Hastings and an HS1 extension.Technically this is incorrect: HS1 is specifically the highspeed line that runs between London and the Channel Tunnel and, as such, is the responsibility of HS1 Ltd, rather than Network Rail. HS1 Ltd licenses train operators to use its infrastructure, but they do not run trains themselves. However, associating the Rye, Hastings and Bexhill project with the HS1 name makes it sound slightly more glamorous than it actually is, which is useful for those promoting it.
Will the track need to be dualled again?
No, there are no plans to restore dual track on the Marshlink. However, the passing loop at Rye station will need to be extended for the new trains. Currently this runs between the two level crossings at either end of the station, but new track will need to be added for up to a mile in the westerly direction towards Winchelsea. This should not be a problem because the track bed remains wide enough to accommodate the extra track. Network Rail have given assurances that the upgrades will not “cut a great swathe through Rye” as has recently been suggested.
Will the line need overhead cables?
As yet no firm decision has been made on whether to use these cables or the third rail system. Anecdotally, overhead cable systems are said to be more reliable in bad weather, and there have been instances in which the trains running on the HS1 line were able to stay running when much of the rest of the network was shut down during heavy snow.
How frequently will the trains run?
No official decision has been taken on this, but Stuart Harland of the Marsh Link Action Group suggests that one Javelin train and one local train an hour will run in each direction.
Realistically, how likely is this project to happen?
In the words of Stuart Harland, the project is at present “a concept with a set of intentions”. For this reason many specific facts and details are not yet available. Meanwhile, “firm assurances” of commitment have been given by the major parties involved and a provisional date of 2019 set for the beginning of work on the line. The proposals are said to have the strong support of Hastings Borough Council, Rother District Council and East Sussex County Council among others. However, there is one major obstacle to be overcome . . .
How exactly will it be financed?
The upgrade of the line is estimated to cost in the region of £150 million and there is no certainty that this money will be raised, certainly in such a short time. It should be noted that this bid for funding will be made in competition with other proposed national rail infrastructure projects. There are, of course, other MPs in other areas who will be keen to see that rail projects in their own constituencies are given priority funding. Here, the councils involved have jointly funded a consultant to make a case for the investment in this project, based upon the economic regeneration of the area. Amber Rudd’s office has suggested that another organisation called SELEP (South East Local Enterprise Partnership) might also be willing to contribute funding to the scheme.
In the meantime, some Rye town councillors at last week’s planning meeting voiced considerable scepticism that the scheme would ever take place or that the funding would be found.
The simple fact is that until a formal announcement is made regarding funding the whole matter remains hypothetical.
And, finally, the question on everyone’s mind: will the Javelin trains actually stop at Rye Station?
Amber Rudd is one of the main proponents of the scheme, being involved since its inception, and she has repeatedly said that is the intention of those involved. There is no reason to suppose this won’t happen. Ultimately, the decision will rest with the train operators themselves: Southeastern. Anyone in Rye who feels strongly enough about the matter is invited to lobby our MP and the Marsh Link Action Group.
And a postscript . . .
Currently, the journey from Rye to London, when made via the regular train services, can be a gruelling one. There is the matter of changing at Ashford and then the long haul up to Tonbridge and beyond. If you happen to take the train that stops at all the stations before Tonbridge it seems to take a very long time indeed. On the return journey, once the sun has set and there is nothing to look at out of the window the gaps between Tonbridge, Paddock Wood, Staplehurst, Headcorn, Pluckley and Ashford mysteriously seem to increase exponentially. When you are finally back at Ashford International there is the matter of getting all the way across the station from platform five to platform one. If you don’t make haste via the long underpass and get up and down the two flights of stairs, or use the newly improved lifts, with whatever baggage you might have, you might well miss the connection back to Rye. There then follows a dreary wait of up to an hour for the next train.
So the prospect of being able to travel to and from London rapidly and without interruption is attractive. There remains, however, the consideration of the fare, which no one has discussed yet, and whether travellers are happy to arrive at a terminus that is not in the heart of London.
I will conclude with one story. A friend of mine once needed a lift in the early morning to Ashford station because there was some delay on the Marshlink service. He duly caught the highspeed service and I learnt he was already on the London Underground by the time I had driven back to Rye. That is what happens when you are able to travel on the fastest domestic train service in the country. To have direct access to a train like this from Rye station seems a wonderful thing indeed.
I am grateful to Network Rail, representatives of HS1 Ltd, Amber Rudd’s parliamentary office and Stuart Harland of Marsh Link Action Group for answering my questions. Southeastern trains did not respond to a request for information.
Photo: Nick Taylor