In part 2 of our look at Sussex we made much of the economic problems of Hastings. In this part we will look at a radical proposal to improve the service from London to Hastings and Bexhill. This is the idea to extend the HS1 Domestic service from Ashford to Rye, Hastings and Bexhill by substantially upgrading the currently unelectrified line from Ashford to Ore, just to the east of Hastings.

A Butterfly flaps its wings…

One thing of which we are constantly reminded in rail transport is that a decision regarding one location can have significance elsewhere. Ordinarily we would not look at an unimportant slow single-track line way out in the Kent and Sussex countryside. Its lack of importance currently is indicated by the fact that there is an infrequent service provided by two-car diesel units. In this particular case, how this line is developed may well have a significant effect on rail services both without and within London. Its development (or not) ought to be a factor when considering Sussex services to and from London on the Brighton Main Line as a whole.

A Quick look at the HS1 Domestic scene

The HS1 Domestic service from St Pancras to Kent is often seen as something of a minnow in the grand commuter scheme of things. Its launch was almost treated with typical British derision. There was resentment in Kent because the remaining services to London Bridge were slower as a consequence of having fewer trains to provide a comprehensive service to London Bridge from the same number of stations. Business was slow to build up. To add insult to injury the fares went up by more than the normal amount to reflect the improved service – i.e. the additional services provided to St Pancras.

Things are very different today, with the number of passengers on HS1 Domestic matching those on Eurostar. Indeed one wonders how Kent would now survive without the service. The current number of passengers on HS1 Domestic is all the more remarkable when one considers that SouthEastern only has half the number of platforms that Eurostar has at St Pancras and also operates much shorter trains. One can listen to the head of SouthEastern talking about the HS1 Domestic series about 9 minutes into this video of the Kent Rail Summit.

Possibly more important to our story is the decision by Kent County Council to provide funding to allow the HS1 Domestic service to experimentally stop at Sandwich and Deal around 2011. The economic benefits of this to the area were considered sufficient that it ensured that the service continued to run and this service is now to be written into the franchise. In fact because the HS1 Domestic service has been more successful than anticipated there is now an issue of only just enough rolling stock.

HS1 Domestic goes loopy

The increase in demand for HS1 Domestic services is part of the reason why SouthEastern will now replace the existing services with a loop (illustrated well on the trains4deal website) from January 2015. Note that the line is actually only high speed from St Pancras to Ashford. All things being equal, it would make sense to utilise this option as much as possible with the Javelin train sets (class 395) shuttling back and forward on this high speed line rather than have them trundle around the Thanet coast. Of course all things are not equal and life is more complicated than that.

HS1 trains to the Kent coast are now very firmly established and from January 2015 even the sleepy rural station of Martin Mill (annual passengers c 30,000) will have a High Speed service to St Pancras (fastest train 74 minutes). Of course in fact only a portion of the journey would be at high speed with the rest of the journey being no faster than the current service.

The birth of the idea of HS1 Domestic to Hastings

It is always hard to identify where a transport idea originated from. Successful schemes (and even potentially good looking schemes) seem to have a plethora of people retrospectively claiming credit for “their idea”. Certainly the idea of running HS1 trains to Hastings is a fairly obvious one – if one knows the relevant railway geography.

It would appear that the first people to take it seriously, or at least seriously outside Network Rail, were those at Railfuture. At the time they weren’t even looking at the issue but were trying to build a case for re-opening Uckfield-Lewes and realised that they mustn’t fall into the trap of looking at that re-opening in isolation. When they commissioned a more broad-based study of Sussex the prospect of running to St Pancras from Hastings looked like something that might produce a greater benefit at less cost. No doubt there was also an initial belief that it would be an easier task, as it would not involve re-opening any closed line or building any new railway.

The idea was taken up enthusiastically by the Hastings MP. Politicians with their pet rail schemes are not always seen as good thing. Certainly there have been some cases where this has not worked well and it is said we would probably never have had Stratford International built for Eurostar if it had not have been for the lobbying of the late Tony Banks, former MP for West Ham. We also have a rarely used third platform at Mudchute DLR station and this is said to be because it was easier to build the thing than convince the MP involved that it would really serve no purpose in future. On the other side of the argument, Thameslink started off as an idea suggested by the GLC and the very successful East London Line extension only progressed when it was taken on by the GLA as a regeneration project. If a railway project needs to look at the wider benefits to make a good case it may well be no bad thing to have the current MP (of whatever political persuasion) give their support.

Hastings rail summit

And so at the end of March 2014 Amber Rudd MP held a rail summit to press for HS1 to Hastings and managed to secure the attendance of the Transport Secretary and a senior figure from Network Rail. Railfuture, not an organisation to miss an opportunity for publicity, publicly unveiled a painting of of a Javelin train at Hastings station as a hopeful sign of the future. At this summit we were assured of an “absolute commitment” from Network Rail to deliver HS1 in Hastings and Rye. This is strange because other messages from Network Rail suggest a commitment to investigate such a possibility. And quite how Network Rail would commit to doing this without yet having much of an idea of costs is hard to comprehend.

It is quite amusing to compare the report on Amber Rudd’s website with the report on Railfuture’s website. For avoidance of doubt, they are both reporting on the same event. The Railfuture report talks of commitment to develop the project which is ambiguous but almost certainly only commits to developing plans, costing and feasibility with a view to taking it further if the figures stack up.

Beware the political element

With a note of caution one has to wonder to what extent this summit was seriously intended to achieve something and to what extent it was done to bolster the standing of the local MP. It is certainly the case that the talked about timescale of completion in 2019/20 looks very, very optimistic when one looks at the work involved. One cannot help wondering if this was suggested because it is immediately before the 2020 general election, rather than because it fitted in with any railway planning timetable. Given that we have just entered Network Rail’s Control Period 5 (CP5) which is where you basically spend the money on the schemes planned in CP4, it would initially seem highly unlikely that a start would be made before 2019 let alone a finish.

Intentionally or otherwise, the fact that we now have fixed five year election cycles that are almost aligned with fixed Network Rail five year control plans almost makes it impossible for a politician to get involved with proposing or supporting a rail scheme and see any result before (s)he is next due for re-election. This would certainly appear to be the case here unless the government were to come up with fresh money rather than expect the scheme to come out of Network Rail’s existing budget. It would appear that supporters of the scheme could not really be serious about a 2019/20 completion unless they were also to argue that additional money should be made available, as all of the money in CP5 is already committed. Making additional money available might go down well in Sussex but could generate a different reaction in other parts of the country and may well be a net vote loser.

Elements of the scheme

The scheme itself, such as is currently known, and the advantages of it are well covered on the relevant page on the Railfuture website. It was also given prominence and appeared on the front cover of Modern Railways for June 2014. The details of the scheme won’t be repeated here in great detail. The details given inside the Modern Railways article were surprisingly sparse especially in relation to costs and that is probably an indication of where we are. In reality, in Network Rail speak, we are somewhere between GRIP 0.5 and 1.5. There is essentially a proposal to run trains from Hastings, or more likely Bexhill, or maybe just possibly Eastbourne, to St Pancras via Ashford. It it worth mentioning that, to a lesser extent, the economic issues that affect Hastings also apply to Bexhill – a little further to the west along the Sussex coast.

A major problem with developing a proposal – even at this early stage – is that there are so many variables that interact. A Network Rail spokesman has suggested that one either does the full upgrade (linespeed, some re-doubling, electrification, level crossing elimination, direct service to St Pancras) or adopts a “do minimum” strategy for the line. It appears that the supporters concur but presumably that will only last as long as the full scheme looks like being a possibility.

The argument for the above is that the first three elements previously mentioned are unlikely to show a good case on their own and without all three of them the prize of running the service to St Pancras would either be impossible or pointless, because the timing would hardly be better than at present. Level crossing elimination is a complicated one. It does nothing for faster trains but may become a necessary consequence of running either faster or more frequent trains.

Linespeed

On a lightly used line an improvement in linespeed is unlikely to show much benefit unless it has a knock on benefit that achieves something substantial – such as reduction in the number of trains needed or running at a frequency (e.g. hourly) that otherwise would not be possible. One thing it could achieve is more stops, but some of the intermediate stations involved are in the middle of nowhere and incredibly lightly used. Alternatively, it could give the possibility of delaying the train for a few minutes at Ashford, if necessary, in order to allow for a connection from a late running train from London. Spending on a linespeed upgrade just to assist in ensuring connections are maintained is unlikely to make an economic case though – of course the less reliable the connection, the better the case that can be made.

A further issue here is the extent of the increase in linespeed. What is being wanted is an increase from 60mph (or even 40mph in places) up to 90mph. This is not a minor tweak. Consequently one would expect it to be a fairly major operation to strip out what is there and replace it with a much better foundation. The marketing name of the line – Marshlink – certainly does not bode well when speculating on the solidity of the current foundation, although way back in 1979 the linespeed was 85mph (according to the history of the Line page on the Marshlink Action Group website). Raising line speeds will not just be a case of lifting up the track and repacking the ballast.

Electrification

Electrification on its own would be hard to justify despite not only the line being a “diesel island,” but also that we currently have diesel trains running over the third rail from Ore to Brighton which could also be eliminated. There would also be the issue of whether to electrify with third rail (the obvious choice) or overhead catenary which would appear to be the way of the future. Assuming Network Rail would countenance third rail then this is complicated by the fact that the case for overhead would be better if one had decided to run High Speed trains to Hastings, as these trains already have pantographs as well as third rail shoes and it is preferable to run dual mode electric trains using the overhead current collection where possible.

Complicating the issue of electrification even further is that you really do not want to electrify the current track layout then alter it, such as by putting in longer passing loops, resulting in electrification work having to be undone and then redone. Of course this is complicated further by that fact that this is not nearly such an issue for third rail as it is for catenary. On the other hand, the sheer length of track that would need to be electrified (not much short of 30 route miles – roughly the distance of London to Gatwick) would suggest that overhead electrification with its lack of need for substations would win on any cost comparison.

One factor that would help the case for overhead catenary is is that there are few road overbridges and the Ore tunnel is now single-track, which should mean there is plenty of of space overhead for the catenary. That does leave the Mount Pleasant tunnel between Hastings and Ore which is still double track but it is also currently electrified with the third rail and could remain so.

Electrification of the Ashford-Hastings Line may seem an obvious thing to do, but as long as the Oxted-Uckfield Line remains unelectrified it is hard to see how a case could be made just on fuel savings and other operational benefits. The diesel units are only around 11 years old and have plenty of life left in them. It is true they have to occasionally return to the main depot at Selhurst but in terms of time this is not too terrible as it is simply a journey up the Brighton Main Line from Brighton. It is difficult to see the how cost savings could justify electrification of such a long section of track simply on the basis of eliminating diesel journeys and four or five two-car diesel sets.

Reinstating double track

Next comes the issue of how much track to reinstate as double track. This is a significant cost and this is important to get right as one does not want to kill the case for the HS1 link by overspecifying the amount of double track needed. One advantage of increasing the linespeed is that it reduces the length of double track required. Currently, if more double track were needed, the obvious thing to do would be to extend the existing passing loop at Rye. Of course how much double track one needs will depend on the timetable so…

Indicative timetable

Marshlink

Diagram shows stations, double track sections and links to London. For some stations the number of trains per day in one direction is shown.

It is hard to imagine a problem timetabling a little rural line but there appear to be three distinct potentially competing demands:

  • an all stations service to serve the quieter stations. It is difficult to suggest a frequency but in London and the South East one would generally expect an hourly service as an absolute minimum, regardless of station usage, if that were possible.
  • A semi-fast service to link the major stations between Ashford and Brighton of at least an hourly frequency, possibly omitting Eastbourne if a short section of cutoff track referred to as the Willingdon Chord were built.
  • A service from St Pancras to at least Hastings, probably Bexhill. It would be hard to see the capital investment justified for just a peak hour service so this also needs to be at least hourly throughout the day.

Even with the current timetable it is a struggle to provide a suitable service. One would have thought that a lightly used line with few stations would at least stop all the trains at the stations that there are. In fact that is not the case and Doleham get just four trains a day Mondays to Fridays and on Saturdays and Sundays only the first and last trains call there. It is the same for Ore, although this station is served by other trains that terminate there. Trains (on an hourly service) also stop alternatively at Winchelsea and Three Oaks except on Sundays when they too are reduced to first and last train only.

As if to emphasise the existing potential, in the current timetable there are two short return journeys in each peak between Rye and Ashford International. They call at both intermediate stations. By using these trains one could travel in the morning peak from Rye to St Pancras in just 1hr7mins. In the evening one can even depart from St Pancras at 18:19 and be at Rye by 19:23.

The problem for any future HS1 scheme is that not all the desired aims of the Marshlink timetable could be met simultaneously and something has to give. It could be that in the event of there being an HS1 service that the semi-fasts are withdrawn as the service effectively becomes possible by changing at Hastings (or Bexhill). That in turn will depend on the timetable for Sussex coast trains and how good the connection would be. It may then become apparent that one or two low cost upgrades along the East Coastway (East Sussex Coast) line would make a significant difference. And so on. There is a lot for Network Rail to investigate.

A further, but hopefully lesser, timetable problem would be how to plan trains over any future flat connection at Ashford. If the proposals involved a proportion of an HS1 Domestic train dividing and joining at Ashford then that would also have to tested out in a timetable exercise for workability.

The alternative

On the subject of timetables, there is the intriguing issue of the January 2015 draft SouthEastern Hastings to London timetable having a new fast service from Hastings to Charing Cross departing at 08:04 and a Charing Cross to Hastings service departing at 16:20, offering a 90 minute journey time. This is just 22 minutes more than proposed by HS1 from St Pancras to Hastings.

This new fast service is much faster than has previously been possible – and it goes to the popular station of Charing Cross. One wonders if this is an attempt to support the case for HS1 to Hastings and to do something in the long intermediary period before it can be introduced. Alternatively could it completely undermine the case for HS1 to Hastings? When the next major phase of the Thameslink work at London Bridge is complete and this train could stop at London Bridge, this would be down to just 83 minutes Hastings to London Bridge. Now this is just one train a day but it would take just a quarter of an hour longer than the proposed Hastings – St Pancras service. What this seems to show is that not only is there the complex issue of working out the best financial case for HS1 to Hastings but inevitably there is going to be the necessity of carrying out an equally thorough assessment of the alternatives.

Buying new trains

A further issue is the need to buy new trains. The original idea may have been to extend trains terminating at Ashford but they will be pretty well non-existent once SouthEastern implements its loopy service. So the presumption is that one would have to buy new trains to cover the entire journey from St Pancras to Bexhill. Based on a quoted time of 78 minutes from St Pancras to Bexhill then we are talking about an absolute minimum of a 3 hour out and back trip with 12 minutes stand time at each terminus, and that would mean 3 trains. 4 diagrammed trains would be preferable and that is before we allow for less than 100% availability.

The Modern Railways article is optimistic that being able to acquire the trains will not be a problem. The article states

Southeastern has indicated that growth on HS1 means that the 29×6 car fleet of class 395s will need expansion in Control Period 6 (2019-2024) anyway.

Here lies another potentially insurmountable problem with the optimistic timescales quoted elsewhere. Even if the scheme was a goer it would require rolling stock and it is hard to see, realistically, how this could be obtained other than by tacking it onto another order.

One simply does not ask for bids for three or four high-specification trains and expect to get competitive ones. So any new rolling stock will probably have to wait until the 2020s when the order can be combined with a similar one. It is hard to see the SouthEastern TOC, whoever that may be, bringing forward an order for anyone else, even a sister company. It is also unlikely that, having decided they need the trains, they will then allow the first few of that order to roll off the production lines and be delivered elsewhere. Putting it simply, when taking advantage of another order one takes one’s place at the end of the delivery line and does not queue jump.

The spectre of a TWAO application

One thing not mentioned so far by anyone is the possibility of needing a Transport and Works Act Order which in turn could trigger a public enquiry and the delay that involves. Conventional wisdom is that upgrades to an existing line on existing railway land do not require such formalities. Despite this it has come noticeable in recent years how once a need is shown for any acquisition of land or stopping up the highway is proposed for the purposes of a railway scheme, it seems that the entire scheme gets subjected to a Transport and Works Act Order and the nearly-always-inevitable public enquiry. So the closing of a couple of level crossings and their replacement with bridges (or nothing at all) may be enough to trigger the process. Recent precedents are not encouraging for those who would rather these things did not happen. A lot of Crossrail and almost all of Thameslink was work on existing railway land, yet the the entire scheme went through scrutiny by either a Lords committee or a public enquiry.

We also have the more recent precedent of a very similar scheme which we have not yet had time to report on. The line from Bicester to Oxford has been closed to be upgraded with higher line speed, electrification and doubling of track. There was a small section of totally new track – the Bicester chord. Nevertheless the whole scheme and not just this chord went through a tortuous public enquiry and in fact very few of the many objections made related to the new chord. Also not encouraging is the fact that the Oxford-Bicester Line is expected to be closed for around two years for upgrade work and the scheme cost around £250 million.

Where are we now?

One does not wish to dampen enthusiasm for the idea of Javelin trains from St Pancras to Hastings but it is hard to come to the conclusion that it, if anything, is a long term solution – and if the figures stack up then we are talking around 8-10 years away before a viable scheme can be implemented. We are thus only at the beginning.

The next stage would appear to be for Network Rail to do some detailed costings – assuming an argument about how much the cost of providing costings will cost and who will pay for it can be be avoided. Indeed Network Rail have effectively been mandated by the government to explore all the options for rail in Sussex so it could be argued that their remit requires them to do it.

It is pretty much inconceivable that these costings would not include some figures, maybe in not so much detail, establishing that other alternative schemes were either simply not possible or not viable. Already there is talk of a fast service from Ashford to Cannon Street. To show that HS1 to Hastings is the scheme to go for, Network Rail would need to show that extending any such alternative scheme simply wouldn’t achieve the necessary result at a lower cost

Only once we have some serious costings can one start to estimate the viability of the HS1 scheme. This will be challenging as one puts a value on non-transport factors (such as the effect on unemployment within Hastings) and it will no doubt will lead to a lot of political argument. Northern MPs will almost certainly put forward their case that the amount of money involved could be much better spent revitalising rail services elsewhere.

As far as we are concerned, it is hard to see HS1 to Hastings as anything other than a possible long term solution. Unless Network Rail could be fairly certain that there was a both a viable case to be made and that they could be reasonably confident of implementing the scheme towards the start of Control Period 6 then they really need to plan their Sussex strategy on the basis that this scheme will not be implemented any time soon but might be eventually. This will be rather a challenge.

It seems that the time has come therefore to forget about ways of relieving the Brighton Main Line in the immediate future that involve new or seriously upgraded alternative routes and get on with looking at how the Brighton Main Line itself can be upgraded.

Thanks to Railfuture for background help and permission to use their image of a painting called “Shock and Ore”.

Written by Pedantic of Purley