Press release of public meeting with Network Rail and Southern about Line Closure

Below is a press release that was issued by our Chairman Stuart Harland about the meeting

PRESS RELEASE

Date: 4 October 2011
re: Maintenance works force line closure for 9 weeks

The fate of rail customers on the MarshLink line in the first quarter of next year became just a little bit clearer following presentations by Network Rail (“NR”) and Southern Railway (“SR”) to a packed meeting at Rye Community Centre last Friday evening. The meeting, arranged by MarshLink Action Group (“MLAG”) brought together many of the interest groups using the line, in particular schools and colleges, parents, commuters, local businesses, town councilors and tourist officers from along the length of the line from Hastings and Ashford. Political weight was brought to the meeting by Amber Rudd (MP for much of the affected line) and Rye Town Councilors Mary Smith (also the RTC appointee to MLAG) and Heidi Foster who both contributed to the efficient running of the meeting.

Presentations were made by NR and SR on why they intend to close the whole of the railway line from Ashford to Hastings from 9 January to 11 March next year (referred to by NR as a “blockade”) and replace the rail service with a bus service for this period. Following the presentations, NR and SR were subject to a full interrogation of their arguments by the audience.

NR showed photographs of the inside of the tunnel and emphasized the urgent need for repair works. The tunnel dates back to 1851 since when a lot of maintenance has been carried out but, in 2005, loose brickwork was found resulting in a “short-term fix” by fitting mesh to the underside of the tunnel: but this still permitted water to penetrate which continued to degrade the fabric of the tunnel. Permanent and urgent repairs are now required to ensure the long term viability and safe use of the tunnel. NR cautioned against any suggestion of delaying the work referring to the disruption caused by the closure of a tunnel two weeks ago on the Brighton Line. The work required would occupy shifts of workers (though in response to a question, the number of such shifts was not specified) operating in protective clothing with extractors in continual operation: the work also required supporting structures which could not be readily removed to permit trains to pass through. Consequently, NR said there was no possibility of trains being able to go through the tunnel whilst these works were being undertaken. Representatives of schools and colleges along the line expressed concerns about the scheduling of the work in winter: they argued that the winter period is a very busy part of the year for students and the summertime would be preferable when schools were closed and many commuters would have some of the time on holiday. Painted into a corner, NR admitted that contacts had been let for the work which couldn’t be changed without incurring penalty charges so there was no realistic opportunity to change the timing. Looking at the work to be undertaken, NR added that the blockade provided opportunities to do other work and investigations which, when eventually implemented (so not all committed now), would significantly improve the speed of the line. Nonetheless, some additional works would be done while the line was closed such as fettling up in various places and, possibly, the repair of the embankment to the south of Ashford (though this may have to be delayed because of the need for environmental studies). But some other works that give the ability to achieve what MLAG said they are looking to achieve, the line being able to accommodate two trains per hour, are subject to further study and funding – these include the dualling of the track through the Ore Tunnel; improvements to barriers along the Marsh; a new barrier at Winchelsea Station and signaling changes at Rye.

Stuart Harland, Chairman of MLAG, said “NR’s presentation seemed to make clear they have been working on this for quite a while. The downside of that is that the plans are immovable. The upside is, hopefully, that they have their timing right and we won’t be subject to any nasty surprises. So it was then to be seen what SR had in mind for its passengers.”

SR explained that the blockade of the Ore Tunnel meant trains could not operate on the line at all, the problems being maintenance and fuelling of the diesel units. They had looked at all alternatives they could think of but none resulted in a viable train service. During questions, representatives from MLAG and SHRIMP (St. Leonards & Hastings Rail Improvement Programme) pursued SR with alternatives but all were considered impractical. SR said their only alternative was to operate a bus replacement service for the duration of the blockade. SR was in discussion with a large operator of luxury 50-seater coaches and that is likely to be the one appointed – the meeting was shown a picture of some very big but pretty yellow coaches. Questions were raised about the suitability of these coaches on country roads; their functionality in winter conditions; their ability to keep to a timetable in winter; and their ability to carry bikes and disabled passengers. All questions were responded to reasonably positively but doubts remained about bikes and disabled passengers which are issues which will be pursued. SR’s intention was to run two coaches per hour scheduled to arrive at Ashford in time for the High Speed trains to London. Questions resulted about the adequacy of this schedule considering the trains are now generally packed: this resulted in a discussion on the average passenger usage data collected by SR in terms of passenger numbers and the seasonality of traffic: by this time in the discussions, seasonality was unimportant since the time of the works couldn’t be changed: but pressure was put on SR to re-examine its data to avoid passengers, particularly the more vulnerable, being marooned because of inadequate buses. SR accepted the point and suggested that it was easier to adjust the timing of buses than it was trains to fit in with changing needs. This raised concerns about a proper reliable timetable being available.

Amber Rudd, MP for Hastings and Rye participated in the meeting and summed up her overall position “Although I welcome the investment in this line, I have raised objections about the duration of the closure. I have asked Network Rail to look again at the manpower they have made available for this in order to accelerate the completion of the works. I will also be pushing for compensation for the passengers who have already purchased costly season tickets and are now having to suffer longer journey times for such a long period.”

The meeting was also attended by Nick Perry, Lib Dem parliamentary spokesperson for Hastings & Rye, who said afterwards “As usual MLAG has organised a very useful meeting to inform local people about the detail of the scheme, and to hold operational decision-makers accountable. I hope that the industry officials have listened to the very real concerns from parents and teachers about the potential problems for local students. They will need to liaise further with the colleges and make every effort to iron out these problems.”

Stuart Harland, Chairman of MLAG said “MLAG’s primary concern is the practicality of operating a bus service in winter and for passenger numbers which are large but variable throughout the day. We are very concerned about the vulnerability of school children, particularly the 51st child trying to board a 50-seater bus away from the relatively protected environment of a railway station. The meeting also identified cyclists and disabled passengers as other groups which need further thought. We are keen to work with all these interest groups and the other rail action groups along the line (who were well represented at the meeting) to discuss with Southern the adequacy of the bus service. [Although time is running out for such considerations, we are also checking out one other possibility for operating a shuttle service between Rye and Ashford: this possibility may not be feasible and we may be too late but we’ll just check this out anyway.]”

Stuart Harland
Chairman
MarshLink Action Group

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