Since her arrival as constituency MP in 2010, Amber Rudd has consistently talked up the prospect of local railway stations of Bexhill, Hastings and Rye getting a fast connection to London via the High Speed network (HS1) at Ashford. 

Ms Rudd’s current website states: “Since I was elected in 2010 I have made it a priority to improve our area’s rail links. This is key to boosting the local economy and attracting jobs and investment. Currently it takes far too long to travel along the coast and to make journeys to London.” And she explains how every year she holds a “transport summit” where “Government ministers and industry leaders present on service improvements, and they hear from the local community on where more can be done”.

PICTURE: Dave Young

In addition, she has convened a High Speed Rail Working Group which meets regularly in Westminster. The group is made up of local MPs, council leaders, the Local Enterprise Partnership and business and development leaders “with the aim of speaking with a clear and unified voice to make the case for High Speed Rail to Network Rail and the Government.”

It seems reasonable to enquire, after nine years, what progress has, in fact, been made. 

London to Hastings in 68 minutes
In March 2014 a summit chaired by Ms Rudd, and attended by the then Secretary of State for Transport Patrick McLoughlin, projected a plan to electrify and upgrade the Marshlink line between Hastings and Ashford so as to accommodate high-speed ‘Javelin’ trains, running to and from London’s St Pancras International station. Journey times from London to Rye would be “slashed” to 55 minutes; Hastings would be reached in 68 minutes; Bexhill in 78.

Network Rail was to “lead the development” of technical and financial details of the scheme, with input from local authorities, MPs and the South East Local Enterprise Partnership (SELEP). “The service could be up and running by 2022”.

Leaders of local rail pressure groups lined up to cheer. Ray Chapman of the East Sussex Rail Alliance (ESRA) was quoted as saying: “This is a monumental moment, potentially signifying the greatest investment in infrastructure in this area in over 167 years, since the original construction of the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway into St Leonards in 1845.” Stuart Harland of the Marshlink Action Group (MLAG) said: “We believe the improved journey times to London and across the south-east coast would help the economic regeneration of the area. In addition to a high speed train service, we understand the line would retain the capacity for a local electric train service, replacing the current unreliable diesel stock. This would bring with it a more reliable service stopping at all stations and so increase the value of the line to rural users. It would also make the Marshlink region more accessible for tourist purposes, including from the continent.” Hugh Sharp of Bexhill Rail Action Group (BRAG) said: “This is potentially wonderful news for Bexhill. Current average journey times to London are close to two hours, and only the hardiest commute the full distance every day. This development would make Bexhill the terminus for a nationally prestigious high-speed rail service, and consequently a more attractive place to live, work and visit, reinvigorating our local economy.”

In the summer of 2015 George Osborne, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, produced a budget which picked out extension of the HS1 services to Hastings and Rye as a key element in the need to invest in infrastructure to support the South East and South Coast economy. Ms Rudd’s first job in government had been as his parliamentary private secretary – it seems plausible that she will have had words in his ear to this effect. But Mr Osborne’s support was clearly dependent on Network Rail coming up with technical solutions at an acceptable cost.

“Far Too Long”
By October 2017 Ms Rudd was reporting from her “fourth Hastings Rail Summit” that the previous vision to extend the HS1 service with overhead electrification on the Marshlink line “would have been hugely expensive and it would have taken far too long to come to fruition”. Now there was a new plan which, she claimed, would still deliver the journey times previously envisaged. This involved changes to the track layout at Ashford International, investment in hybrid electric-diesel or battery-powered trains to run the service, and improvements to the Marshlink track, all still deliverable within the same time frame – Network Rail’s next five-year “control period” of 2019-2024. She was “working with partners at Network Rail and in local government to make sure this happens”. 

It didn’t. Network Rail turned out to have other priorities. Earlier this year John Halsall, route managing director for the South East region, acknowledged that services in this sector had been “amongst the worst in the country” over the previous five years. He announced an investment fund of £4.3bn to be spent over the next five-year period – but on maintenance, track and level crossing renewals and station improvements. He clearly sees his task as getting existing services to perform better rather than expansion of any new ones. 

On 20th June this year Ms Rudd again hosted Network Rail and the then Transport Secretary Chris Grayling at a parliamentary meeting “to press for progress of the high speed rail service to Hastings and Rye”. Mr Grayling was reported on her website to have “committed the Government’s support for examining the track layout changes needed for direct journeys… the Department for Transport will jointly fund development work for the proposed track layout changes with local authorities.”

Stuck on Amber
This sounds positive, but support for an “examination” is hardly a green light for action: the project is, in traffic terms, still stuck on amber. The “local authorities” from whom joint funds seem to be anticipated do not appear to have been represented at the meeting. East Sussex County Council has more or less confined its current budget outlay to “core services”; Hastings Borough Council and Rother District Council are hardly less cash-strapped. And one can’t help noticing that Mr Grayling himself has been discarded as Transport Secretary. Ms Rudd will have to build new bridges with latest incumbent, Grant Shapps.

Ms Rudd’s comments after the meeting in June, though, sound strangely familiar: “We must press ahead with this project. I will be hosting further summits with Network Rail as well as local bodies including our Councils and Chambers of Commerce to discuss the best steps from here.

“People in Hastings & Rye should know that as their MP I will always take their concerns to the very heart of government, ensuring they get the best possible deal from government.”

History over recent years may bear out the first of these claims. There’s little evidence supporting the second.

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