I spent Friday in Kent looking first-hand at the impact that the Channel Tunnel High Speed rail route had had there. I travelled to Ashford with the Managing Director of Southeastern, the rail company that operates the local rail services serving the whole of Kent. In the county, I met parish councillors from two villages beside which HS1 was built, local campaigners fromk the Ebbsfleet/Gravesham area, Kent County Councillors and KCC officers, including planners who had been closely involved in coping with the railway’s construction and operation. I also stood right by the HS1 route while both a local fast service and a Eurostar train passed.
Inevitably, one day can only give you a brief impression of what people in Kent went through and live with now. To start with, there are two major differences between HS1 and the proposed HS2. First, Kent actually has stations – at Ashford and Ebbsfleet- and not just the Eurostar services but fast local services run along the HS1 tracks. So there are some benefits to local people in terms of better services to be weighed against the adverse impact. Second, for most of its length HS1 runs alongside a six-lane motorway. There is simply no comparison between that and the Misbourne Valley route. To label them equally as “transport corridors” is risible.
Southeastern told me that they now had more passengers from towns like Ashford and Folkestone using the high speed services than using the conventional trains, despite a 20 per cent fare premium for the high speed option. They argued that passengers were willing to pay the extra because they valued the time saved from the daily commute and the opportunities that that gave to them for leisure and family life. I challenge them as to whether this meant that they were providing a rich man’s service. They denied this, arguing that their trains were used by people on average incomes too. In don’t know whether there are published figures to show the number of passengers from different income groups. The local campaigners and parish councillors were more sceptical about the transport benefits. they said that the Department for Transport’s original predictions of passenger numbers and revenue had not come close to being fulfilled and said that they resented paying through taxes and higher fares for a line that only a minority of the county’s population used.
It was difficult to gauge the noise impact, in large part because the proximity of the motorway inevitably dulled the impact of train noise. While the noise from the two trains that I observed was less intrusive and shorter in duration than I had expected, those trains were shorter and travelling more slowly (140mph for the local service and 180 mph for Eurostar) than is predicted for HS2 (250 mph). Local campaigners said that while noise barriers did work pretty well, out in open country with no noise barrier the impact was much greater. To my mind this reinforced the need for detailed and reliable noise maps to be available for study and comment before any final decision is taken on HS2.
I saw a cut and cover tunnel at the edge of one village. Visually, I would not immediately have known that there was a tunnel there had I not been expecting it. The village road had been reinstated over the top of the tunnel and the depth of the topsoil layer meant that oak trees were now growing on top of the structure. However, the parish councillor from that village said that construction had meant disruption, temporary road closures and diversions and a lot of dust over a couple of years. He also said that compensation had been ungenerous and taken far too long to get settled. Kent County Council briefed me about rescue archaeology along the route and on how some historic buildings had been dismantled and relocated.
In terms of lessons learned, Kent CC said that with hindsight they would have engaged earlier over the issue of overhead gantries, which were visually very intrusive, and tried to get the DfT to waive its normal rules about safety barriers on bridges. It was the inflexible imposition of these rules that had left a number of country lanes looking permanently suburbanised, when there was no objective need for large concrete barriers in such locations. One of the things that had worked well was the establishment of an environmental fund, financed by central government and administered by an independent trust, that could give local groups grants to finance local environmental projects.
What came across from all the conversations I had is that that people in Kent, whether officials, councillors or grass-roots campaigners are happy to share their experiences with colleagues in Buckinghamshire. They too had to go through the experience of learning very quickly about a range of technical issues and drawing on their knowledge may help Bucks constituents in their campaign.