Anyone arriving at last Friday’s rail summit at Hastings [January 30] might be forgiven for thinking that they were attending a party political event: they were greeted on arrival, not with a railway poster but a large blue banner with a picture of Amber Rudd. Inside there were more leaflets with photos of Rudd on every chair. Indeed, with a general election now just a few months away, and with Hastings being such a marginal seat (Con majority of 1,993 over Lab in 2010), it is no surprise to find the MP for Hastings and Rye actively campaigning on major issues like transport for her constituents.
Many there were no doubt hoping for a major statement about the railways, especially as, at a similar event last year, a surprise announcement was made about proposals to electrify the Marshlink and provide a new Javelin train service connecting Bexhill and Hastings directly to London.
Claire Perry, a Transport Minister, was there, despite suffering from flu. Surely she was going to tell us something new about these proposals? Otherwise, why else were we there? We’d already been told that a Javelin train was waiting at Hastings station, just a short distance away – later we could go on a promotional trip to Eastbourne and back if we wished. I did (see A Javelin ride at slow speed).
Eventually, after presentations about the rail network, Perry rose to speak. She commented on the slow train service from Hastings, blaming many of the problems on the out-of-date infrastructure of the Tunbridge Wells line. She was diplomatic about the perceived failures of the network operator, since some of its executives were present. She talked about the Government investing billions of pounds in the railway. She explained how members of her department were skilled at cost analysis (but neglected to mention the problems of the West Coast Main Line electrification, which has allegedly gone over-budget by many millions of pounds). She did mention the regeneration of the town’s seafront – by coincidence Hastings Observer‘s front page story that day – and also the restoration of the pier, expressing her hope that Hastings could become a thriving holiday destination again.
It was only in the last part of her speech that she finally came to the proposed upgrade of the Marshlink. She told everyone that the proposals were “not a done deal, but that the right steps were being taken to get us where we want to be”. And that she supported the challenge of bringing the Javelins to Hastings. Then she sat down.
After the previous rail summit Rudd had spoken of an “absolute commitment” from Network Rail to turn the Marshlink proposals into reality. Since then this phrase – “absolute commitment” – has been used repeatedly by our MP and her team. Recently I challenged her twice at a public meeting in Rye about how and when funding for this project would be decided, and both times I received the same phrase as an answer.
Aboard the Javelin, on the return journey from Eastbourne to Hastings, I asked her for clarification about Perry’s comments. Without hesitation she repeated her absolute certainty that the Marshlink proposals were going to happen. Electrification of the line on its own would not have been enough to attract investment, she argued. However, the potential reduction of the journey time to London by 20 to 25 minutes, thanks to the Javelin service running on an electrified track on the Marshlink, and then connecting to the HS1 line at Ashford, made the business case very strong.
Speaking to Rudd in person there can be no doubting her own personal conviction and sincerity about the project and its potential benefits for the region. She appears to be staking her reputation on it. Sarah Owen, the Labour candidate, has also pledged her support for the rail project, but in a statement issued after the meeting, questioned the lack of a timescale and the missing details in the information provided by the minister and the MP.
Meanwhile, we can expect that sometime in April, Network Rail will publish its cost analysis of providing the Javelin service. This will then be used to finalise the business case for the regeneration of Hastings and the surrounding area. But the timescale for possible approval and allocation of funding by government remains unknown.
The politicians will continue to debate the best way to regenerate Hastings, officially one of the 20 most deprived areas in England (see government figures 2010). Here in Rye we will continue to wonder if and when the project will happen. On a smaller scale the regeneration argument applies to us. Depending on your point of view this is either a great opportunity for Rye or potentially a disaster, as some town councillors believe.
Speaking of Rye’s town councillors, how many turned up to the rail summit? None. The only elected representative from Rye was David Russell, one of our district councillors.
Photo montage: Tony Nunn