In Tonbridge and Malling there are stations across 5 different railways lines. Each one, despite serving different communities and heading to different stations in London, has seen a huge increase in the number of passengers using services over the past few years.
With more passengers, comes a need for more trains. Yet on the Maidstone East line, we’ve seen a reduction in trains over recent years. As demonstrated by the decision in 2009 to remove the services to Cannon Street.
This was never going to be anything other than bad news for our whole community. We are left, at the moment, in a situation where the trains can only take us to London Victoria, bar a couple of services to Blackfriars in the morning peak. Understandably these are full, despite their journey times and early start.
That’s why I’ve been looking to do whatever I can to increase services to the City since I was first elected in 2015. I was delighted that one of the first commitments I achieved was the assurance that we would get a new Thameslink service, and that this would serve both West Malling and Borough Green stations.
This matters, not just because it is a different service, but it would have increased capacity rather than simply replacing existing services. The Thameslink programme would have given us genuine competition between it and Southeastern on the line. It was an infrastructure improvement above what we have seen before, and exactly what this line needs. As traffic congestion along the M20 and A20 has increased, the train can provide a genuinely reliable alternative.
However, since learning what was coming, the past couple of years have thrown this into some doubt. It was due to start in December 2018. Then came an announcement in late 2017 that this would be delayed until December 2019 - based on recommendations from the ‘Industry Readiness Board’ (IRB).
The IRB is one of those bodies who you wouldn’t know about unless you were impacted by one of their decisions. In rail terms their role, and caution, was thrust to the spotlight after widespread problems a couple of years ago on Southern services. The unreliability of services and Industrial relations disputes led to constant strikes and people doing everything possible to avoid getting the train. Performance fell through the floor and commuting became a gamble from one day to the next. As someone who used Southern services on the Uckfield Line to get to Parliament during this period, it was a very unpleasant experience. To this day I am dealing with the consequences of unreliable rail services in Edenbridge and surrounding villages, as a result of issues with Southern stretching back many years.
Both Southern and Thameslink are part of the same franchise – Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR). As their name suggests, it is they who have to deliver the Thameslink service on the Maidstone East line. It is they who had to postpone the introduction of this service as a result of the IRB’s recommendation for a year. It is they who are responsible for failing to meet the original timetables.
Many ask why it is our services which were delayed. The reason was that this was the only one of Thameslink’s 24 services which was brand new – the rest were replacements of existing services. Therefore, once the IRB had made its recommendations, they took the judgement that it would be better to ensure that as many of the other services were introduced first, on the basis they replaced an existing service. Despite my argument that this was, in effect, replacing the cut Cannon Street services in 2009, I am sorry to say it fell on deaf ears.
But those of you who follow rail matters closely will have seen the impact of the initial phase of Thameslink services when they were introduced last May. It caused chaos, leading to emergency timetables and compensation schemes. The consequence is that the industry is now much more cautious than it was previously about its ability to deliver what it says it will.
So, this left us in a position where there is a great deal of reluctance by GTR, Network Rail and the wider rail industry to implement anything until they are absolutely sure it will work. The problem they have is, for a service which has already been promised as ours is, GTR know they have to deliver it.
Over the past few months there hasn’t been much news to report. I know many people are frustrated about this, keen to have news so you can plan your journeys, and your lifestyle. Knowing what time you’ll need to leave the house in the morning and return home in the evening affects everything else, from where you choose to live to how to look after your children. I know very well the impact of delays and unpredictability.
During this time I’ve been trying to get to the bottom of the question to work out exactly what is going on. It has got to the point now where, conscious of the few months between today and the supposed introduction of this service, I feel the need to share my findings.
I should say that over the past few weeks I’ve spoken frequently with the previous Rail Minister and previous and current Secretary of State for Transport, GTR and Network Rail. They know my view. I’ve also been working closely with neighbouring MPs to see what can be done. In May, we made it clear what we expected to happen when writing collectively to the Transport Secretary at the time. You can see the letter here.
Over the course of these discussions it has become evident that the rail industry is doing all it can to avoid introducing a service in December. There are a multitude of factors preventing this from happening. These include stabling (where to park the trains), updating Traffic Management Systems (signalling and more) and identifying the train paths which will be used. Not all of these are yet sorted.
It is now obvious that, in principle, the earliest we can expect any sort of service is May 2020.
But this won’t be the full service straight away. Indeed, I gather it won’t go through London to Cambridge as originally intended. The exact route is still to be determined, but it could go to St Pancras or Kentish Town. It would start as one service each morning and afternoon, increasing to three direct services in both directions in December 2020. Beyond that, there remain questions about whether it goes to London Bridge at all, or another station nearby such as Blackfriars. Dates such as 2022 and 2023 are being talked about. This would be 5 years late if it is and I have made it clear such a delay would be unacceptable.
However, deep within the detail is one piece of positive news. On speaking to the previous Rail Minister just a couple of weeks ago, he made it clear that the works at Kings Cross Station meant that there would be no longer be platforms available in Central London for services to terminate from north of London. Consequently, track would be needed and made available for services from the north to continue through and the only option is to continue through London down the Maidstone East line. This may or may not be Cambridge route initially planned, but for most of us, that’s less important than the extra services to the City.
I appreciate there is a lot of information here, and the plans seem to be constantly evolving. Although I am speaking frequently to the Department for Transport, Network Rail and GTR, I cannot say with any certainty what will definitely happen, or when. But we have to be pragmatic in accepting where we are, and what the art of the possible is. One thing I have done is ask the Rail Minister that any price rise on the Maidstone East line be delayed until the Thameslink service is delivered, in full.
There are clearly things which the rail industry needs to learn from this sorry state of affairs. They have, quite literally, played havoc with people’s lives. I know of many people in Kings Hill, Leybourne Chase and other communities who have moved into the area specifically because this service was promised. They have chosen to make our fantastic community their home, only to be let down by a rail industry failing to deliver on its promises. Additional delays will only continue to harm the economic prosperity of our area too.
I shall continue the dialogue with all those concerned and update you on any further developments. I thought you would appreciate my thoughts on where this all is at the moment. You can see from the letter I wrote with neighbouring MPs in May just what we felt needed to happen, though this explains why it won’t be delivered, I remain committed to pressing for a better result.
For a decade we have patiently awaited better rail services on the Maidstone East line, we need a better result.
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