Briefing: The Brighton Ashford Rail Service

What is it?

Southern runs an hourly limited-stop service between Brighton and Ashford calling at Lewes, Polegate, Eastbourne, Bexhill, St Leonards Warrior Square, Hastings and then stations to Rye and Ashford.  This service is important to the local economy but is under threat.

Why is it important?

  1. It is the only East-West rail link between Sussex and Kent. At Ashford it offers forward connections to:
  • Most major towns in Kent.
  • High-speed ‘Javelin’ services to London
  • Eurostar services to France and Belgium.
  1. From Bexhill, and also from Hastings at certain times of the day it offers the shortest journey times to/from London (up to half an hour quicker).
  2. It is also a Pan-East Sussex link e.g. Bexhill to Rye.
  3. Usage of this service is important in demonstrating future demand for a through High Speed service.
  4. Demand is likely to grow along with:
  • Increased population of Bexhill [from around 45,000 to 68,000]
  • Developments in the Thames Gateway including Ebbsfleet and the Paramount Theme Park which will be looking to recruit staff from this area.
  • Inbound tourism from North/East London and beyond via St Pancras/Stratford.

What is the problem?

Unfortunately in 2002 after a decade of procrastination, the DfT and its predecessor the Strategic Rail Authority took the decision not to electrify the line between Ore and Ashford, known as the ‘Marshlink’.  This would have allowed standard electric trains to be used the whole way from Brighton to Ashford.  Instead they ordered new diesel trains.  However, they ordered too few of them, and instead of ordering 3 carriage trains, ordered 2 carriage ones.

Consequently the service has been subject to overcrowding since its inception, especially at school times, and in the morning and evening rush-hour on parts of the route e.g. Hastings to Eastbourne.

What is happening now?

The DfT and Southern/GTR are consulting on a new timetable, to be introduced in December 2018.  This floats three options:

  1. To continue as now, but do nothing to address overcrowding e.g. by providing extra carriages
  2. To split the service at Eastbourne, with a longer electric train running between Brighton and Eastbourne, and the 2 car diesel train between Eastbourne and Ashford.
  3. To split the service at Hastings, with a longer electric train running between Brighton and Hastings, and a 2 car diesel train between Hastings and Ashford.

Some of the vibes coming out of the DfT and train operators suggest that the preferred option is Option 3.  This would be extremely detrimental to Bexhill, and also to travellers making other through journeys e.g. commuters between Rye and Eastbourne.

But surely this would mean extra seats, and that must be a good thing?

Yes BUT:

  1. Currently Bexhill’s quickest connections to/from London are via Ashford.  They are up to half an hour quicker than via Haywards Heath. Journey times would be extended by changing train.
  2. Worse still, passengers cannot rely on connections.  We particularly know that we cannot rely on Southern’s East Coastway connections which are invariably late/disrupted/cancelled/terminated short at Eastbourne. HS1 at Ashford is the one exception for connections because it is the most reliable railway in the country, and adds value because it provides a tube-free link to East and North-Central London.  Many of the commuters changing onto HS1 at Ashford are ‘higher value’ commuters which this area needs to attract and retain if regeneration is to be sustained.
  3. People don’t like changing platforms/trains and/or waiting around in the cold/dark/rain. Many of these passengers are long-distance travellers with luggage, or are commuting for work either side of Hastings e.g. Bexhill to London, Rye to Eastbourne and so on.
  4. Changing trains is also bad for people with disabilities.

So what is the usage of the through service?

A decidedly ‘dodgy’ passenger count was undertaken by Southern/GTR on 9 March 2016, and is included in their timetable consultation document.  This was a Wednesday at the end of winter.  This makes it decidedly unrepresentative because the Marshlink has irregular traffic flows.  Other than possibly Tuesday, it is the quietest day of the week when compared to:

  1. Mon/Fri/Sat/Sun when long distance travellers via Kings Cross/St Pancras/Euston would be using the service.  Also it is popular with students travelling to/from universities in Brighton/Kent.  Furthermore, higher Eurostar flows at Ashford generally take place at weekends and on Mondays and Fridays.
  2. Which is Rye Market.
  3. The line is generally much busier in the summer with tourists.

The count also includes the number of passengers specifically using this service between Brighton – Hastings & v.v. which on first glance inflates the problem and makes through passengers to/from Rye and Ashford appear a smaller proportion of the total.  This a red herring because there are other services available west of Hastings – two other trains per hour to Eastbourne/Lewes and one to Brighton plus a further connection.

Nonetheless, this particular service is attractive because it is a limited stop service west of Hastings, while the numbers are also artificially inflated by school children travelling between Hastings and Bexhill in the morning.

What the count does show is that approximately half of the passengers using the Marshlink, even on this quiet Wednesday at the end of the winter, originated from or were travelling to stations WEST of Hastings.  However, if in the future it becomes necessary to change trains at Hastings, a large proportion of these through passengers will be lost. This could significantly harm the economics of the line.

Is there anything else that worries the rail user groups?

YES, the Marshlink is a rural branch line that has been threatened with closure in the past.  Its long-term viability depends upon growing through traffic, as there is a very limited catchment between Hastings and Ashford, which are only medium-sized towns.  Future demand is likely to come from Bexhill which is set to see a population increase from 45,000 to around 68,000.

Growing passenger numbers has been the strategy for the past 15 years or so, and was underpinned by the through service being introduced in Dec 2005 – nearly a decade after the opening of Ashford International.  Passenger numbers are up by at least 50% on pre-2005 levels.  All this risks being lost.

Also, the proposed HS1 service to Rye, Hastings and Bexhill is not yet a done deal.  Until this is delivered, we cannot afford to lose this through connection.

So what should be done instead?

In the first instance, the rail authorities should make good a long-standing promise to electrify the line.  This would allow standard electric stock to continue a through service.  It would also allow the use of Javelin high speed trains, subject to the necessary track work at Ashford.

In the absence of electrification, additional diesel stock should be procured or modified bi-mode stock enabled.

Finally, we suggest otherwise that the rail authorities should seek to manage demand and move passengers away onto the other two services each hour.  This can mostly be achieved by timetable modifications.

The overcrowding affects a minority of Brighton – Ashford services.  It is disproportionate to abandon the service completely.  There is also a danger that by splitting the service now, with no guarantee of HS1 services as yet, connectivity along the coast will be seriously and irreparably damaged.