Hastings high speed rail link may never happen

From: Martin Woodfine, On behalf of SHRIMP (St Leonards and Hastings Rail Improvement, Silverstone Court, St Leonards

Members of the public who attended the recent Hastings Rail Summit will have mixed feelings about the status of the still undelivered project to extend High Speed rail services to London.

While this would undoubtedly be of economic benefit to the town and open up new employment prospects over a wide area, it seems that this is not a strong enough business case on its own.

Maybe much more should be made of the potential bonus to tourism; Visit Kent estimates that visitor numbers to Kent resorts have multiplied seven-fold since HS services were introduced.

Hastings’ glass is at best half-full, half-empty. There is clearly the needed political impetus from both local MPs with support from both regional (HBC, ESCC) councils; the regional Local Enterprise Partnership is also still firmly on board.

But, crucially, those in charge of delivering the project, ie, Department for Transport (DfT) and Network Rail (NWR), appear to be far from enthusiastic.

Per NWR the major issue is the necessary remodelling of the major Ashford West junction, which recent surveys have shown to be far more complex and by default more expensive than anyone had predicted, the funding of which has been restricted by DfT to only the required renewal costs.

HS1 extension had been discussed by the local user groups before Amber Rudd had shown her political ambitions. There is no doubt that her enthusiastic support has given the proposal very high profile, however a high profile plus political sound bites and gimmicks do not equal success, and after over 10 years we are no nearer this new service than when we started. Would a change of political administration change the tide?

This is doubtful, not least because of where the blockage lies, ie, within a state-owned corporation. Plus the rising but unspecified cost would draw comparisons with other critical services that could make better use of the funding. Notwithstanding that the on-going support from HBC is most welcome and we were pleased to see it mentioned within the recent Hastings plan (section 4.14).

All the local user groups are disappointed and critical of the fact that other very necessary upgrades to local Marshlink infrastructure have been relegated to phase 2 of a project wherein phase 1 may never be achieved. This is the totally wrong priority. As for phase 3, re-electrification – well anyone with knowledge of the current railway industry knows this is not going to happen for a very long time.

At this point it is useful to note that another regionally important scheme, in the North East, has also been put on indefinite hold. Thus we have a score line of Hastings 0, Middlesbrough 0, with at least 15 years extra time to be played.

We hold little hope for High Speed Hastings. Nothing would please us more than to be proved wrong. The project is not totally finished. There is clear scope for it to be revived. But for this to happen a new visionary direction will be necessary, with clear timings, actual funding and no more ambiguity.