By Mark Sullivan 

The story of Amber Rudd’s frustrated attempts to promote a fast rail link to London via the HS1 route through Ashford was told in HIP Issue 133 (Marshlink Upgrade Stuck On Amber). But is the Marshlink route to London really the best option? The direct line from Hastings to Charing Cross is 62 miles long (exactly 100 km). The talked-up route via HS1 is no less than 82 miles to the capital: 26 via Rye to Ashford, then another 56 on to St Pancras. 

There is an obvious alternative way to improve Hastings’s London train service, which Ms Rudd is in a good position to get in a year or two, now that she has a new Transport colleague Grant Shapps there at the Cabinet table every week to be lobbied (and wanting to do better than the departed Chris Grayling). It is to give the town what it has never had – an hourly express service to Charing Cross.

Currently the ‘faster’ of the two trains each hour to Charing Cross takes 1 hour 33 minutes, a gloomy average speed of 40 mph. It stops at no less than 10 stations en route. The other calls at all stations south of Tonbridge and takes 1 hour 45 minutes – a steam-age 34 mph average. Despite modern trains, these services are actually slower than 33 years ago, when the electric service started. In 1986 the faster trains took 1 hour 24 minutes, the all-stations 1 hour 39. And most peak hour trains, on which higher fares are charged, are slower still.

Marshlink: the pros and cons
One can travel to St Pancras by the Marshlink train and HS1 every hour in 1 hour 29 minutes, changing at Ashford with a six to eight minute wait. Marshlink + HS1 is a better route for long-distance travel from Hastings to Leeds, York or Edinburgh than the Charing Cross service, as it requires no tube travel, just a short walk to King’s Cross Station. And tickets for long distance journeys are the same price either way.

However, HS1 charges a higher fare than the direct line if you aren’t going beyond London. And you generally need the tube to get further. By contrast London Bridge is next to the City, and Charing Cross right by Trafalgar Square – for Amber Rudd a pleasant walk to the Cabinet Room in 10 Downing Street. It’s not surprising that the direct line is more popular, despite the endless stops on the way.

Then what about the much-trumpeted electrification of the Marshlink line for the ‘Javelin’ trains? The 25,000 volt power supply and restoration of the original double track to allow a decent speed would not only cost a huge sum. The current type of overhead structures that this would require – thanks to 21st century defensive over-engineering – now disfigure Brunel’s Great Western main line to Bristol, and are much uglier than the elegant design installed in the early 1970s on the West Coast main line from Lancashire through to Glasgow. The campaigners for the HS1 service to reach Hastings overlook the harm such steelwork would do to Romney Marsh, the heritage town of Rye, and the beautiful Brede Valley – where earlier campaigners defeated plans for pylons (in the 1960s) and a new trunk road (in the 1990s). The Friends of the Brede Valley could be back in action. And the four tunnels built in the 1840s under the ridges of Ore, Hastings and St Leonards that bring trains so neatly through the town will not take overhead wires without major rebuilding.

An alternative
There is an alternative: a fast service each hour, including the peaks, to and from London Bridge and Charing Cross, calling en route at just Warrior Square, Battle and Tunbridge Wells. This could cut the journey time by 20 minutes, making it 73 minutes to Charing Cross. Today’s trains are slow because they are treated as a suburban service for West Kent. The Hastings ‘fasts’ are all forced to call at High Brooms, Tonbridge, Sevenoaks and Orpington. On any other line, expresses would run non-stop the 32 miles from Tunbridge Wells to London Bridge. No wonder the Hastings line is seen as one of Britain’s slowest.

When the Eurostar trains from Paris and Brussels shared the line north of Tonbridge, they had priority. Hastings was a poor relation. But in 2003 the first, Kentish, part of HS1 opened, the Eurostars were re-routed, and South Eastern’s schedules could have been rewritten to speed up the ‘1066 line’. They weren’t, and never have been.

A determined timetable redesign which gives priority to an hourly Hastings-London express would change both the quality of the service and its public image, and increase use. The extra revenue could generate income to fund improvements to the line – first a stronger power supply allowing higher speeds over the hilly Weald, and then boring a second tube at the shorter two of the four tunnels south of Tonbridge that have delay-causing single track, the historic legacy of the narrow widths caused by Victorian contractors’ cost-cutting.  Seventy minutes from Hastings to Charing Cross would then be in view. 

Franchise scrapping
And, unexpectedly, there is now an opportunity to achieve this. The Department for Transport has this month scrapped the planned South Eastern franchise re-letting. Had it gone ahead, the Hastings to Charing Cross  service was unlikely to change. Instead, on 7 August, the Government announced that its current Rail Review, chaired by former British Airways Chief Executive Keith Williams, will be awaited before South Eastern’s future is decided – and Mr Williams has already said publicly that “franchising in its current form has had its day”; it is “preventing innovation and long-term decision-making, and stopping the railway working as a system”.

Reform takes time, which means that the current Govia contract is likely to be extended yet again, into 2021, with the timetable we have now. But that gives the time to push for a real change when the franchise finally ends. 

Amber Rudd’s “Transport Summit” on 11 October – see below – could be the place to stop chasing the chimera of ‘Javelins’ reaching Hastings, and instead seek, from a reformed railway management, an hourly express service to Charing Cross, all day and every day. The urgency? She could just remind Mr Shapps of her narrow majority and the potential for another election all too soon.

The writer is an independent transport planning consultant who regularly travels on the railways of East Sussex.

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