Chairman’s report of AGM – the future looks good but our line needs improving now

This report by MLAG chairman Stuart Harland describes the discussions at our Annual General Meeting on Friday 20th at Rye Town Hall. 

 

The main theme of this year’s MarshLink Action Group’s AGM was originally intended to be the future and so guest speakers were arranged from Network Rail and East Sussex Rail Alliance (both on different aspects of the proposed Javelin service). But the poor performance of the MarshLink service this year, substantially related to rolling stock failures, led MLAG to prioritise the current state of the service with a speaker from Southern Railway: unfortunately the speaker’s own rolling stock failed with a flat tyre on the way to the meeting and therefore there was no-one from Southern to explain the current failings and, as was hoped, advise how it was planning to rectify the problems. As it happened, an employee of Southern was present and contributed what he could. So, the main topic for discussion reverted to the future of the line.

It was at last year’s MLAG AGM that Network Rail (“NR”) first presented their proposals for extending the existing Javelin service (the HS1 service from London St. Pancras to Ashford) to Rye, Hastings and Bexhill. Since that time the project has developed and the current thinking was presented by Lisa Goodman, Senior Development Manager of NR. It has to be recognised the project planning still has a long way to go but working party meetings have been taking place over the last year with local authorities, MPs and other interested parties to develop the business case for the project. This includes the preparation of a report by consulting engineers Mott MacDonald on behalf of East Sussex County Council, Rother District Council and Hastings Borough Council on the regeneration benefits of the project: the report has not yet been produced but Keith Glazier of ESCC was present and confirmed it is soon to be made available. NR has commissioned its own internal work (referred to as the Guide to Railway Process (“GRIP”)) to substantiate costs with engineering surveys and estimates and this is expected next month, in April.

The basics of the project are substantially as presented last year with line speeds generally expected to be 60-90 mph from Ashford to Doleham and 40-60 mph onwards to Hastings. But the ongoing big question for NR (and of concern to MLAG from an environmental point of view and compatibility with rolling stock in the surrounding lines) is whether the power source would be third rail (as MLAG would prefer) or overhead. NR acknowledges the difficulty of overhead power along the Marsh with gantries having to be built on (obviously) marsh land and with the strong winds. Whichever, some 30 miles of track would need to be laid but, apparently, only about half a mile of dualled track to the west of Rye.

Another major factor with environmental impact is the large number of crossings that currently exist along the line – there are 9 road level crossings and 37 user worked and foot crossings which all need to be assessed from a safety point of view. In response to the concern of at least one attendee at the meeting, the installation of foot bridges at some of these locations was not thought to be very appealing. But, where possible, crossings would be closed, combined or re-routed (as in the case of two crossings of the A259 at East Guildeford). But two crossings in the middle of Rye (at Ferry Road and Rope Walk) would require extensive works.

But, in terms of infrastructure, the major work will be at Ashford, to merge the MarshLink line into either Platform 2 or 3, each option with its own advantages and disadvantages.

With regard to timing of the project, the business cases for the works on the line are expected to be revalidated in May this year. The project would then be included in NR’s draft Kent Route Study (even though most of the works and benefits are in East Sussex) which is due to be published in early 2016. That would then be evaluated by Government for funding in the next “Control Period” (successive periods of 5 years used by NR for future planning purposes) which would mean work being undertaken and the service starting in the period 2019-2024.

Fortunately, present at the AGM were Amber Rudd MP and Conservative Party candidate for the forthcoming election (who has been instrumental in getting the project to its current position); Sarah Owen, Labour Party candidate; and Nick Perry, Liberal Democrat candidate: all voiced their support for the project so it would seem it has cross-party support.

Sarah Owen was interested to know what would strengthen the business case in comparison with other projects in the country: NR thought the GRIP process was underway and the business case needed to be evaluated, understood and presented to Government. Sarah also wondered what plans are being put in place for not just finance but also other resources such as staff/ expertise in view of this project being timed for works at about the same time as HS1: on this issue, NR thought there would not be competition for competent staff with works on the Javelin project being undertaken by local NR staff. She also wondered if there had been any change in the projected project cost: NR would not be drawn on this with its own project estimation work being already at an advanced stage.

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Moving on to developments potentially even further in the future, Stuart Harland explained that MLAG and the other rail action groups in East Sussex had joined forces under the banner of East Sussex Rail Alliance (“ESRA”) to enable matters of mutual interest to be put to the train operating companies in the recent vastly enlarged new franchise region called Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern (“TSGN”) of which the MarshLink is now an even smaller part than it was of the previous franchise region. The chairman of ESRA is Ray Chapman and he attended the AGM to comment on the potential for a South Coast Main Line.

Ray explained that, with the Javelin service in place (so assuming that happens) then there is the possibility to expand the service further, potentially to Southampton and Exeter driving a passenger travel mode shift from the busy and congested A27/A259 to rail. Inevitably works would be required along the line, initially to the north of Eastbourne by reinstating the Willingdon Chord which would avoid trains having to divert into and then out of Eastbourne. This would also enable an increase in capacity for services into Eastbourne which the town so badly needs from Brighton to match service levels seen on the West Coastway. And so it is along the line, relatively inexpensive works being required to result in a south coast service, reducing the need for significant road developments which might otherwise be proposed.

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The meeting then moved on to current issues, but without the benefit of the scheduled speaker from Southern Railway. Inevitably, current issues are very important because, until the Javelin project is approved and then built, the current service is all we have.

The major concern of many attendees was the poor performance of the diesel trains on the MarshLink during the year so far with many of the Rye Shuttle services being cancelled and there being little notice given to passengers to enable them to take avoiding action. Things are not expected to substantially improve when Southern take additional diesel trains on lease in a few months time because Southern has scheduled them to be allocated to the Uckfield line (the only other diesel operated line in the vicinity). Amber Rudd issued a press release on the day of the AGM referring to the issues and calling on Southern to re-allocate some of the newly arriving diesel units to the MarshLink line and said “I am calling on the Secretary of State to allow Southern to re-allocate a number of these units to the Brighton-Ashford service.” MLAG fully supports this initiative and awaits the Government’s and Sothern’s response.

It was noted that not all MLAG members use the Javelin service but take the service to Charing Cross. This has its own issues at the moment with major development works taking place at London Bridge that will continue for a few more years yet. On the eve of the AGM, NR issued a press release saying that “The last few weeks have seen unacceptable levels of service and overcrowding at London Bridge station for which we are very sorry. NR and the train operating companies serving London Bridge station are putting in place a detailed action plan to create a better environment for passengers over the days, weeks and years ahead as NR continues its vital task of transforming and re-building this busy, congested station.” MLAG waits to hear what changes will be made but expects that more pain is likely before any gains are felt.

Beyond these matters, MLAG has many more issues to raise with Southern including:

– there used to be a connections policy at Ashford but this has now fallen into disrepute with a delay in an inbound train resulting in a missed connection. MLAG would like to see a policy reintroduced to enable late running trains to meet their connections if the delay is within a specified number of minutes;

– following the track improvements over the last few years (starting with the closure of Ore Tunnel many will remember), when will line improvements be used to improve line speeds, timetabling and, indeed, enable a connectivity policy to be re-introduced; – the current last westbound train leaves Ashford at 22.34 but MLAG would like to see a later train.

MLAG would like to think that Southern will endeavour to give some priority to responding to these questions in the circumstances.

Stuart Harland

Chairman

24 March 2015

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