There was a large gathering of speakers at Amber Rudd’s fourth Rail Summit last week. The annual Summits were originally set up, primarily, to promote extending the Javelin service to Rye, Hastings and Bexhill (now including Eastbourne) but the speaker-list broadened the range of discussions.
Huw Merriman (MP for Bexhill) started proceedings to emphasise Bexhill’s support for the Javelin project but also because he is a member of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Transport. He pointed out the absurdity of the low average train speed to London from Hastings/ Bexhill compared with equivalent journeys on other national routes and emphasised the objective to improve travel times from the South East (irrespective of the longer term objective with the Javelin). With regard to the strikes over the last year or more, he said the Rail Select Committee has received confirmation from the Office of Rail and Road (“ORR”, the independent safety regulator) about the safety levels provided by onboard supervisors (“OBSs”) and equated them with the current guards/ conductors: MLAG remains doubtful about the ORR’s assertion and, beyond the strict safety issue of a driver being able to operate a train, is concerned that passengers (particularly disabled passengers), remote from the driver, are not being reasonably protected by the rail operator, particularly when it is envisage that trains would still run without an OBS onboard. Unsurprisingly, the ORR’s position was supported by Nick Brown (COO of GTR/ Southern) in explaining the recent improvement of operating statistics. Most telling, Southern has been able to operate a large percentage of services across their franchise on strike days (though, as pointed out last week in response to my piece in Rye News, Southern is no longer able to run a bus service to replace the Rye Shuttle). Not a lot else was said about current services. But he did advise that all OBSs are now fully safety trained for their role (which I found rather surprising) but I imagine they are not trained for the routes they operate. With regard to Southern’s near-future services, the May 2018 timetable is still subject to discussions (including with the local rail action groups) and then approval from the Department for Transport but it should be announced before the end of the year.
With regard to the proposed Javelin service, Huw Merriman advised that he and Amber had made significant representation to promote the service including to the rail minister to reference the Javelin service in the SouthEastern franchise which is soon to be out for competitive tender (and representatives of all three of the pre-qualified operators were present at the Summit). There had also been meetings with train manufacturers (such as Hitachi, manufacturer of the Javelin) about suitable equipment, noting that the means of propulsion (whether electric/ hybrid or bimode) has not yet been decided. Of course, fundamentally, approval of the whole Javelin project has not been given yet but all those present, including Paul Maynard MP (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Rail/ “Rail Minister”), used positive language to suggest it could be in place by 2024 and acknowledged the project made sense. However, there are several fundamental issues to get through in this modern world of ours, not least the significant issue of funding (rail infrastructure is not simply paid for by Network Rail nowadays). The first part of funding is to demonstrate an economic case and, for this purpose, Mott McDonald has updated their previous study and were present to summarise the results in advance of their formal release date at the end of October – fortunately the results were very positive. The next part of the exercise is to find funders and a person has been identified and given that responsibility.
The earliest stage towards getting the Javelin along the MarshLink is surprisingly current – to remodel the line at Ashford station to enable HS1 Javelin services to get it into Platform 2. Cllr Keith Glazier (Chair, Transport for the South East) explained the work being done to achieve this (as an add-on to other mandatory works at Ashford station relating to the international services, works which start next month): he said this was an opportunity that could not be missed and asserted that funding would be found. From the Rye perspective, apart from improving the route of the Javelin services to Kent, the works would have the short term effect of making the interchange from the MarshLink to HS1 easier, across the platform between Platform 1 and 2: this also gets the HS1 line closer to the MarshLink line, thinking of the longer term objective.
Amber Rudd closed the meeting with very positive words but she recognised that considerable work was still needed to get the project to fruition. We look forward to further news as the project advances but, in rail terms, 2024 is not a long way away.