REPORT OF OUR AGM by Chairman Stuart Harland

The following is a report of our AGM that took place at Rye Town Hall on Friday 15th March 2013

How do we get our demands for enhancing the MarshLink service heard and implemented – that was the theme of the MarshLink Action Group (“MLAG”) annual general meeting which was held last Friday in Rye.

MLAG has many service changes it wants to see implemented on the MarshLink line (currently operated by Southern Railways). But, for the moment, we are thwarted.

Service enhancements can be implemented by persuading the train operating company but, perhaps better, by persuading the Department for Transport (“DfT”) to include them in the franchise terms, the agreement between the DfT and the operator on the minimum service level for the franchise period. Since franchises are normally for a period of 5-7 years, such opportunities arise only occasionally. However, Southern’s current franchise ends in 2015 and so, in mid-2012, the DfT issued consultation documents on the two franchises that affect the MarshLink line. Given this opportunity, the MLAG Committee spent a considerable amount of time and effort framing a response to the DfT and submitted detailed proposals to improve the MarshLink service. Unfortunately, as was well reported in the national press towards the end of last year, the DfT suddenly had concerns about their franchise evaluation process and all re-franchising was “paused” (a DfT word meaning, “stopped”) while the way forward was considered. This leaves MLAG in limbo wondering how to press forward with our proposals.

With this political issue in mind, MLAG invited Amber Rudd MP to advise on the way forward. Amber discussed the issue with the Minister for Transport and was able to advise that an announcement will be made shortly by the DfT. The current franchise has two years to run: although the franchising process has been paused, it is likely to be resumed shortly with a revised timetable but a management contract during the intervening period. The importance of electrification of the line was identifies by Amber and members of the audience. The MarshLink line is the only line in the area dependent on diesel trains (apart from the Uckfield service). As warned by an MLAG Committee member, if the line isn’t electrified; if there are no more same-class diesel trains built (currently the most likely possibility); if the servicing location for these trains cannot be made more local (trains currently have to be taken to Selhurst for servicing and repairs): then the cost of operating and maintaining these train sets is, at some time, likely to become too prohibitive with potential repercussions on the viability of the line.

Paul Wyborn, Area Manager for East Coastway, Southern Railway, was asked to comment on the changes taking place at London Bridge Station, expected to continue until 2019: this is particularly important for passengers using the Charing Cross service to London. Paul said the works are, indeed, substantial and there may be platform closures at times: so, it is expected that some trains, at some times, will not be able to stop at the station but it is not expected that any trains will be cancelled because of the works. Paul also advised that investment was being made on signaling work in the Bo-Peep area which should have an effect on line speed.

Concerns expressed from the floor mirrored the issues already raised by the MLAG Committee in its franchise responses:

CONNECTIONS-connectivity at Ashford with London trains continued to be an issue. The main concern is the timetabling which could readily be improved if a schedule proposed by MLAG and other action groups was introduced. There was a related problem with late running trains because an apparent lack of communication between the staff of the two train-operating companies at Ashford (irritatingly, both companies owned by the same parent company). A connections policy should be introduced and followed by the operating companies;

EXTENDING OPERATING HOURS– the length of operation of the service needs extending, both earlier and later trains, to take account of the extending working and social day, and also to enable connection to the Eurostar service to the continent;

RYE TOILET – Rye Station needs a toilet facility. The public toilets opposite the station are closed at each end of the day when trains are still operating. Southern should discuss the concerns with Rye Town Council and part-finance the existing public toilets to extend their available hours;

OVERCROWDING – the capacity provided by the existing two-carriage units is inadequate at many times of the day as demand for the MarshLink service increases: this requirement is likely to continue to increase with potential problems at London Bridge station as commuters from Bexhill and Hastings see the Javelin service as their preferred route to London. The capacity needs to be increased to four-carriage units;

SUNDAY TIMETABLE – the timetable is different on a Sunday from the rest of the week. The different timing of trains has an effect on connections. But also, inexplicably, the trains do not stop at Winchelsea, Three Oaks and Doleham on Sunday: of all days, with these stations having a significant tourist trade, this situation appears to be contrary to any logic and needs resolving;

CLEANLINESS OF ASHFORD STATION – the cleanliness of Ashford station is deplorable, especially considering it is an international station.

It was very useful for the MLAG Committee to see their views were much the same as the MLAG members’ observations from using the line. In conclusion, Amber Rudd said “This was a very positive meeting about why it is important to improve the Marshlink Line.  I am positive we’re making progress.”

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