Sir Roger Gale
Member of Parliament for North Thanet (Margate, Herne Bay & The Villages)
Gale's View - High Speed Vanity
November 28th 2010
It was launched with a fanfare of trumpets and it promised the dawn of a new age of rail travel in the South East. Its roots go all the way back to the Channel Tunnel Bill and the promise that even those of us who live in East Kent “behind the tunnel door” would enjoy the benefits of the rail link on our domestic services.
What a let-down!
A year on, the much-vaunted High Speed One may contribute to the domestic bliss of commuters from Ashford to St. Pancras who take what the railway company likes to call “the Happy Train” to and from work having enjoyed an extra twenty minutes in bed in the morning, but it does little for anyone else.
In spite of risible claims that “a majority of commuters now use the high-speed service” the reality is that anyone travelling from the East Kent and Medway towns is now paying a very great deal more to be taken to a station that they do not want to arrive at for the privilege of then making a twenty-minute underground journey back to the place that they really wanted to get to. Door-to-door journey times (the times that Ministers, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority and the Train Operating Company do not understand are the times that matter) are longer and the fares are higher.
What South Eastern Trains euphemistically describes as the “classic” services that still run, occasionally, into Victoria, Blackfriars and Cannon Street now travel at snail`s pace, stop at stations that most of us never realised had escaped the Beeching Axe and are overcrowded. Meanwhile, the “High Speed” trains have been shortened in recognition of the lack of public support for what, with hindsight, has become an unfinished “vanity” monument to the last government and many of the coaches that the benighted taxpayers of Kent are being compelled to fork out for lie idle and mothballed in goods yards in Faversham and elsewhere. No doubt to be spirited away to another Grand Project in due course.
I really would like to applaud High Speed One but I suspect that I shall be pushing up daisies before any real benefits accrue to those whose interests I try to represent. There are, for instance, as Network Rail told me very recently, no plans in the pipeline to extend the “Javelin” service from Ashford through to a Thanet Parkway station or even Ramsgate. No plans to sort out the missing miles of new track, alter bridges, remove level crossings and deliver the sixty-minute service from Ramsgate to London that was actually achievable a quarter of a century ago using old trans, old stock and existing signals and track.
So much of our hard-earned boodle has been ploughed into HS1 that there is nothing left over to swiftly upgrade the signals and the points that might, then, at least deliver a swifter service on the Kent Coast line
And now, in order to, as South Eastern`s media apologist so elegantly puts it, “pay for investment” we are facing, following three years of above average fare increases, a further rise not of the Ministerial “RPI plus 3%” but of 12.8 per cent on tracks that carry passengers to and from one of the areas of highest social deprivation in the Country. And while those travelling faster and at less cost to other more affluent areas of the South East, Kent`s rail passengers can only wonder at the stupidity of a system that denies access to a port, a potentially viable regional airport and, of course, to businesses that might wish to invest in East Kent if only they could travel there by rail at speeds in excess of thirty-five miles an hour!
A year on, then, my view is that High Speed One has been brought about at inordinate cost and waste, to the benefit of a very few and to the detriment of the many who are paying for it but who wish to use other services. Dick Turpin would have been amazed, I think, at the gall of those who, at least for the moment, are being allowed to run our railway. No point in holding up the passengers at pistol-point Dick. Their pockets have already been emptied by other highwaymen!