Observer column: 20 October 2017
On Track? Or Bypassed??
The rail summit meeting two weeks ago again highlighted local rail improvements, with rail operators outlining welcome enhancements to existing services. And there was plenty of support for the idea of high-speed trains to Hastings. But even if the dream of high speed rail to London is realised, it only goes part of the way to improving our local and regional transport infrastructure.
The goal for high-speed trains via Ashford is a 66-minute service to London. The economic justification for this is outlined in a report produced by Mott McDonald, now available on the East Sussex County Council website.
The works required to bring high-speed trains to Hastings would include re-modelling Ashford Station, improvements to the Marshlink line and at least partial electrification, with bi-mode trains. However, details of the costs of these potential works have yet to be released. And there is no funding yet agreed for this work, or for the new bi-mode trains that would be required. Network Rail referred to the need for 'third party investment'.
Nevertheless, high-speed trains to Hastings remains a worthwhile cause to support. Some have expressed concerns that Hastings could become a London dormitory town, but, on balance, I believe that's less of a risk than the threat to the local economy from our poor transport infrastructure. In a recent survey commissioned by Hastings Council, businesses across the country gave poor transport infrastructure as a one of the main reasons they wouldn't relocate to Hastings. Local employers, particularly manufacturers, also complain about the way poor transport infrastructure and long journey times hamper their businesses.
But we shouldn't place all our eggs in the HS1 basket - high-speed trains are a potential part of the solution, but not all of it. East-west rail connections are slow with no through services beyond Brighton or Ashford. And the road infrastructure remains awful, with no improvements to the A21 planned south of Flimwell, and the east-west routes via the A27 and A259 are subject to heavy traffic, narrow bottlenecks, and frequent delays.
The government is establishing Sub-National Transport Boards to address regional transport issues. The South-East Board covers Kent, Sussex, Surrey, Hampshire, and Berkshire, including all unitary councils in those areas. Unfortunately, district councils aren't represented on the board, so Hastings will have no voice of our own there. But the leader of East Sussex County Council, Keith Glazier, is to be the chair, so there will hopefully be some focus on the transport infrastructure of this part of East Sussex. The board hopes to take on full statutory powers within two years. Transport providers, such as the Highways Agency and Network Rail, would then have to consider the board's strategies and policies in their plans.
So, we will need to make sure this body recognises the needs of Hastings. Its decisions, although strategic, will inevitably affect local roads in Hastings - for example, the need to improve the A259 route through the borough. That could involve reducing traffic along to seafront, but would require significant improvements to The Ridge.
So there will be new regional policies and strategies emerging, for road and rail, which will affect us all. The potential for high-speed rail to Hastings is a part of that. But we'll have to do all we can to make sure regional transport infrastructure improvements benefit Hastings, rather than pass us by.
Council Leader's column