(Stephanie Holt-Castle, Interim Director of Environment, Planning and Enforcement, and Stephen Gasche, Rail Project Manager, were in attendance for this item)
(1) Mr Payne (Cabinet Member for Highways and Transport) introduced the draft Kent Rail Strategy 2021 which set out Kent County Council’s ambitions for the next South Eastern agreement and included a desire for a shift of passengers and freight from road to rail. He said the proposed strategy would replace the 2011 Rail Action Plan for Kent which had been developed to ensure the new South Eastern franchise scheduled to commence in April 2014 delivered a rail service that met the needs of Kent’s residents, businesses and visitors. He also said it had informed KCC’s response to the Department for Transport’s (DfT) public consultation on the then proposed franchise and had been drawn on to respond to the call for evidence by the Williams review into the structure and organisation of the rail industry in the UK.
(2) Mr Gasche said the proposed strategy set out KCC’s strategic goals for rail transport over the next 10 years and that it would provide a plan that had been subjected to wide public consultation that could be drawn on to respond to any DfT consultations associated with the concession or contract for rail services in Kent.
(3) In response to questions, Mr Gasche said the principle of High Speed services to East Kent in 2009 had been predicated on the use of both the new High Speed 1 route and the existing mainline route. The fastest journey time from London St Pancras to Ramsgate was currently 70 minutes and the journey time from London St Pancras to the new Thanet Parkway station was estimated to be about 69 minutes which was a very good time for the length of the journey. He also said that, while Thanet Parkway and other stations would be designed to encourage easy interchange with other sustainable transport, any decision about the provision of a bus service rested with commercial bus operators.
(4) Mr Gasche said that section 11 of the proposed rail strategy, which referred to international rail service, would be re-drafted in the light of recent announcements from Eurostar about the temporary suspension of services at Ebbsfleet and Ashford until 2022. He said the Leader of KCC, the Leader of Ashford Borough Council and the chief executive of the South East Local Economic Partnership had met with the chairman of Eurostar who had given assurance that the service would be re-instated when the commercial conditions were right. He also said that the strategy could be amended to include reference to the need for charging points for electric cars at railway station carparks.
(5) In response to further questions, Mr Gasche said a case had previously been made to the DfT for a direct rail service from Ashford to Gatwick Airport via Tonbridge, however, there was little appetite for it at that time. Such a service might become viable in the future and had been included in the proposed strategy on that basis. He also said the cost of upgrading freight lines to facilitate passenger traffic was prohibitively expensive and it was, therefore, unlikely that a passenger service could be instigated on the Lydd branch line without significant funding from a developer.
(6) In response to comments that the strategy contained both vision and common sense, Mr Gasche said the strategy anticipated a post-Covid world and assumed that people would return to using the railway. He also said it was important that the strategy maximised the freedom of the train operating companies as this would drive innovation, including flexible ticketing and bring the benefits of improved High Speed and Metro travel to Kent. He welcomed the suggestion that the proposed strategy be amended to include reference to the need for electric cars charging points at railway station carparks. He also referred to Rail for Folkestone and said it was a good example of effective campaigning to change the Government’s policy and resulted in getting a High Speed service from London to Folkestone.
(7) Mr Gasche said the proposed Thameslink service from Maidstone had been delayed several times despite assurance from the relevant government minister, however, the latest understanding was that there would be a service from Maidstone to the City at least as far as Blackfriars. There were concerns about the capacity to run more trains through the central operating core between St Pancras and Blackfriars. He also confirmed that it was capacity in this core rather than the signalling infrastructure at St Mary Cray or the Catford Loop which influenced the number of Thameslink services able to operate through the central core referred to in table 10 of the strategy. He also undertook to find out whether freight wagons originating elsewhere in Europe were transferred directly onto High Speed 1 or whether they were re-loaded onto national gauge wagons at the Barking terminal.
(8) Members commented on the need to make the time taken to complete journeys by train comparable with car journey times and on the poor connectivity between the north and south of the county. The inclusion of a reference to the need to strengthen the High Speed fleet serving North and East Kent to meet the ever-increasing demand was welcomed. The need to improve services between Dover Priory and St Pancras, and for improved parking at Dover was emphasised, and it was suggested that the proposed strategy be amended to include the wording ‘KCC supports the ongoing efforts of Dover District Council in securing a journey time between St Pancras and Dover Priory of under 60 minutes and their efforts with Network Rail to increase car parking capacity at Dover Priory’. This was agreed by the cabinet committee. Mr Gasche also referred to: the discussion underway with the High Speed 1 operator about a proposal for a crossover on Dollands Moore which would shorten journey times from Dover and Folkestone to St Pancras; and proposals to develop Westenhanger station to support the new garden town at Otterpool Park.
(9) RESOLVED to endorse the draft Kent Rail Strategy 2021, and t the proposals set out in the strategy’s summary of recommended actions for public consultation in Autumn 2020 subject to updating the section on Eurostar services to reflect the current situation at Kent stations, the inclusion of a reference to the need for charging points for electric cars at railway station car parks and the addition of the words ‘KCC supports the ongoing efforts of Dover District Council in securing a journey time between St Pancras and Dover Priory of under 60 minutes and their efforts with Network Rail to increase car parking capacity at Dover Priory’.
Mr Lewis requested that his abstention from voting on this item be recorded in the minutes.