Photo by Chris Page for Railfuture Railfuture and the local rail user groups - five in the Hastings & Rother Rail Users' Alliance - are campaigning for shorter travel times, and more frequent services, between the east of East Sussex and London via HS1, and Brighton and Gatwick Airport via Lewes. Improved timetabling, higher line-speeds, selective track redoubling, a connection with HS1 at Ashford International, electrification of the MarshLink line between Ore and Ashford International - all on the agenda, in order to support regeneration of the coastal communities in Hastings and Bexhill and improve access to towns and villages along the route.
Stay up-to-date with our latest quarterly branch newsletter railse here.

late-Summer 2021 update: See Network Rail's latest revised presentation on their Strategic Outline Business Case with options for the Kent and East Sussex Coastal Connectivity Programme.

Winter 2020 update: Latest station usage estimates from the Office of Rail and Road confirmed a second consecutive year of record-breaking growth. This followed the successful introduction of Southern's May 2018 timetable changes, which included an Ashford International-Eastbourne service timed for good connections with Southeastern high-speed services to and from London St. Pancras International. See the 8 record-breaking stations for 2019-20, and the before-and-after May 2018 comparisons.

Autumn 2020 update: Network Rail's Southern Region have confirmed that their milestone for submission of the Strategic Outline Business Case (SOBC) for the Kent & East Sussex Coastal Connectivity Programme is Easter 2021, see Timelines, slide 8. They expect to begin consultation from February 2021 when they have some emerging outputs to share, when they will be seeking the support of local authorities, MPs and rail user groups for their proposal for the next step. DfT acceptance of the SOBC would secure the second of the five stages in its Rail Network Enhancements Pipeline with a commitment to move to the third stage, developing the Programme, with an Outline Business Case.

Spring 2020 update: Hastings and Rother Rail Users' Alliance held a two-part event on Friday 28 February, in the morning at Cooden Beach and over lunch in Rye, with GTR/Southern, Southeastern, Network Rail, and a representative range of local stakeholders from the tourism, business and local authority sectors. The theme for the event was Improving our rail services - investing in the future.

Autumn 2018 update: Hastings & Rother Rail Users Alliance are presented (p.3) with Railfuture's Gold Award for Best Campaign, after negotiating with GTR the successful new Southern timetable for East Coastway/MarshLink services (slide 11).
Easter 2018 update: First new-generation Eurostar at Ashford International on 3 April, and Transport Secretary mentions "maximising the potential of HS1" with next-step study of route to Hastings and Bexhill, following his autumn visit (below).
Spring 2018 update: Govia Thameslink Railway unveil new Southern timetable from May 2018 at presentations in Rye and Bexhill. View Bexhill presentation. Railfuture's 'Eastbourne overlap' proposal adopted! Press articles Bexhill Observer and Hastings Observer.

Autumn 2017 update-1: The fourth annual Hastings Rail Summit was held on Friday 6 October 2017. Read 'game-changer' for 1066 country.
Autumn 2017 update-2: Transport Secretary Chris Grayling visits Ashford International station to see site of link between HS1 and platform 2 for connection to MarshLink.

Summer 2017 update: on Friday 28 July the MP for Hastings & Rye Amber Rudd announced her joint response with neighbouring Bexhill & Battle MP Huw Merriman to Govia Thameslink Railway's latest consultation on their draft 2018 timetable; read it here. This aligns well with a key part of Railfuture's responses to the phase 1 consultation in 2016 and also to the phase 2 consultation which had closed on Thursday 27 July 2017; read them under 'Train Operating Companies' in Railfuture Consultation responses. The common message to GTR, and the DfT, is that the demise of the hourly Ashford-Brighton through service, operated by a 2-car diesel train, should be followed by two over-lapping services: a replacement 4-car electric service between Brighton and Hastings/Ore to add capacity, with the 2-car diesel service continuing to operate between Ashford and Eastbourne to maintain connectivity and increase the service frequency between Hastings and Eastbourne via St. Leonards and Bexhill from three to four trains per hour in each direction. Read more about Railfuture's proposal, supported by all five Hastings and Rother rail user groups, here (Modern Railways article reproduced with kind permission of Key Publishing Ltd.)

In early-March 2017 both Network Rail and the Department for Transport set out their plans and choices affecting the future for MarshLink for consultation. Network Rail's draft South East Route: Kent Area Route Study and the DfT's 'Shaping the future' - the next South Eastern rail franchise closed on 30 June 2017. View Railfuture's response to Network Rail here and to the DfT here, or they can be downloaded from Consultation responses under 'Network Rail - Route Studies' and 'Department for Transport' respectively. In late-March 2017 the DfT had published its Prospectus for potential franchise bidders. Then on 22 June 2017 the DfT announced the four short-listed bidders for the next South Eastern franchise, which Railfuture, the local MPs and five rail user groups, local authorities and businesses all want to make provision for the extension of HS1 services to Rye, Hastings, Bexhill and quite probably Eastbourne as a natural terminus. The next step in the re-franchising process was the DfT's publication of the Invitation to Tender (ITT) in late-November 2017, with the announcement of the winning bidder expected in November 2018 ready for commencement of the new franchise in April 2019. The new operator was then expected to introduce a new franchise-wide timetable in December 2022. However the early-2020 outbreak of the pandemic interrupted, and in October 2021 the franchise was taken over by the DfT's Operator of Last Resort, Directly-Operated Railways.

The need

Travelling across or around East Sussex isn't quick or easy. Roads are congested (there are few dual carriageways) with slow peak-time journeys to and from work, bus services are slow and often finish too early in the day, and rail services do not all link up.
  • Hastings is over 100 minutes from London by rail via Tonbridge in the peak
  • Travel between Brighton, Eastbourne, Bexhill, Hastings and Ashford is slow by rail and especially by road at peak times
  • Service frequency at smaller stations between Brighton and Hastings is limited, especially on Sundays
  • Connections with High Speed trains at Ashford International may require long waits (although GTR's 2018 timetable reduced them)

The background

Photo by Southern Railway The MarshLink line runs between Hastings and Ashford International. There are long single track sections between Ore and Rye and between Rye and Appledore. During the 9-week blockade to repair Ore Tunnel in early-2012, after which Sussex CRP organised some station walks in celebration, some improvements were made on the line to remove a line-speed restriction on an embankment just outside Ashford station, and more work is required to remove other speed constraints, eg between Ore and Doleham, currently limited to 40mph. Since the May 2018 timetable changes there is now an hourly service between Eastbourne and Ashford, calling at most stations including a new all-day/every-day MarshLink service for Ore. These services generally stop alternately at Three Oaks and Winchelsea. On weekdays there are some additional 'Rye Shuttle' services which give half-hourly peak-period services to/from Ashford. The shuttles also provide extra services for Doleham, as well as all other MarshLink stations, as they go to and from their Hastings depot; otherwise, as at weekends, Doleham is only served by the first and last services of the day.
The MarshLink line is not electrified; it is a ‘diesel island’ operated by Class 171 Turbostar units. Since these were introduced patronage has grown sharply. In 2018/19 eight of the 17 stations between Eastbourne and Ham Street had record footfall. Some peak and weekend services are crowded, but no extra rolling stock is available.

The ‘Hastings Direct’ line was built with difficulty in Victorian times south of Tonbridge, with many small stations, steep gradients, tight curvature and sub-standard tunnels (where the line is now constrained to single track). In the peak, trains are running at capacity. There are also capacity limitations on the double-track line north of Tonbridge. It is unlikely to be possible to develop this route either to improve journey times to Hastings or to increase capacity.

The evidence

Network Rail's London and South East Passenger Market Study observes that the impact on business travel, and therefore economic output, is relatively large for small incremental improvements to journey times in the range one to two hours (para. 7.2.1), and the impact on commuting, and therefore economic output is relatively large for small incremental improvements to journey times in the range 30 to 90 minutes. Railfuture worked with local rail user groups to agree consolidated feedback on the Market Study to East Sussex County Council, to inform their response to Network Rail. We pointed out that Hastings is 10 miles closer to London than Portsmouth, yet suffers a high level of unemployment because of its relative isolation. York can access London by rail in about the same time as Bexhill. There are three rail routes from Hastings to London offering five travel opportunities in the peak hour, with travel times between 1 hour 28 mins (at extra cost via Ashford/HS1) and 2 hours 17 mins. These are significantly slower than the rail journey from Portsmouth to London, for which the Market Study gives an aspiration of a 75-minute journey. Improvements to the journey time between Hastings and London would therefore confidently be expected to have a significant impact on the economy of the town - the prosperity of its residents and businesses - and attract more commuters to rail.

The regional centres of Brighton and Hastings are around 35 miles apart. The travel time by train is between 68 and 86 mins, with two direct and one connecting trains per hour, an average speed of 24-31 mph. The time by car is around one hour off peak and 90 minutes during the peak. These journey times make it unattractive for people to travel from Hastings, an area of high unemployment, to the key employment centre of Brighton for work or education. However these times are within both the one to two hour band for business travel and the 30 to 90 minute band for commuting, where small incremental improvements have a large impact on economic output. Reducing these travel times would also have a significant improvement on employment in the Hastings area.

Railfuture put its money where its mouth is by engaging independent advisor Jonathan Roberts Consulting to assess the evidence of economic and transport needs in Sussex. The key recommendations to promote economic growth in East Sussex are:
  • Extension of Javelin-style services via Ashford International and MarshLink to achieve acceptable London-Hastings journey times
  • Investment in a direct Coastway connection between Polegate and Pevensey to reduce journey times to attractive levels along the main coastal corridor, between Brighton, the Sussex Coast and East Kent
  • Coastway Metro service linking Eastbourne and Hastings, with more stations
  • Uckfield-Lewes reinstatement to achieve affordable and effective journey times between the Weald, the Sussex Coast and Brighton
  • Faster travel and extra capacity between the Sussex Coast and Gatwick, Croydon and London
  • Electrification and other infrastructure which expands services and connections, reducing journey times - by through trains not changes
View or download the presentation, and view or download the full 80-page JRC report Access and Connections: East Sussex - Opportunities to align railway investment to the economic growth requirements of East Sussex, which was a significant input to the East Sussex Rail Strategy and Action Plan and, as explained in Christian Wolmar's article in Rail magazine, the catalyst to start things happening.

Railfuture contributed to the East Sussex Rail Strategy and Action Plan; in our response to the draft strategy - view or download - we proposed changes to link the strategy objective of promoting economic growth to the required rail industry outputs of faster more frequent services on Marshlink and East Coastway. East Sussex County Council made electrifying and redoubling Marshlink and the Uckfield line its top priorities in the final version of its Rail Strategy and Action Plan, as building blocks for extending Javelin-style services to Hastings/Bexhill and reinstating Uckfield - Lewes.

We carried out a number of station counts which showed that there is a significant demand for travel between Winchelsea, Three Oaks and Hastings and beyond on Saturdays, which it is likely would be repeated on Sundays if a usable service were provided; subsequently, it was. In conjunction with our local affiliated rail user group Three Oaks and Winchelsea Action for Rail Transport (THWART) we held a campaign meeting at Winchelsea station on Saturday 7 December 2013 to call for the return of a usable, all-day Sunday service.
After a decade-long campaign, since all-day Sunday services last ran up to December 2005, THWART members and supporters saw the just reward for their tireless efforts on Sunday 13 December 2015 when all-day Sunday services returned! Eight trains in each direction now serve each station, alternating between the two stations which will each have a train each way every two hours. Check the online Southern timetable.

At the first Hastings Rail Summit on 31 March 2014 Network Rail committed to develop a project and to build the partnership with stakeholders needed to bring HS1 Javelin-style services to Hastings soon after 2019. View the introductory presentation Network Rail had given the MarshLink line Community Rail Partnership a few days earlier here.
Railfuture presented Secretary of State for Transport Patrick McLoughlin the Shock and Ore picture, and Hastings and Rye MP Amber Rudd a model Javelin train, to commemorate the occasion. Full story at High Speed Hastings.

At the second Hastings Rail Summit on 30 January 2015 Network Rail and local stakeholders reported that feasibility studies and economic reviews of the project to bring HS1 services to Bexhill via Hastings and Rye soon after 2019 had been completed in draft and were then expected to be published in April 2015. Rail Minister Claire Perry reaffirmed the commitment to develop the project - read her speech here - and a special Javelin train service was run to Hastings to commemorate the occasion. Full story at First Hastings Javelin.
View the presentation Network Rail gave the MarshLink line Community Rail Partnership a few days later here.

At the May 2015 Bexhill Town Forum we launched our campaign leaflet for High Speed Hastings - view or download it.

In his Summer Budget on 8th July 2015 the Chancellor of the Exchequer confirmed that "The Department for Transport has asked the rail industry to include extending High Speed 1 services to Hastings and Rye in the forthcoming Kent Route Study." The full text can be seen in para.1.327 on page 69 of his Budget Report.

The consultants' first report on the strategic economic case for Javelins to Bexhill, via Rye and Hastings, commissioned jointly by East Sussex County Council, Hastings Borough Council and Rother District Council, was launched in Bexhill on Friday 9 October 2015.

"Bringing high-speed rail to 1066 country" - on 25 February 2016 a high-level working group was established to secure HS1 services for Bexhill, Hastings and Rye, via Ashford International. Read the Hastings Observer for the full story.

The third Hastings Transport Summit was held on Friday 18 March 2016. Read more about it here.

The third meeting of the high-level working group was held on Wednesday 14 December 2016. Read here how the campaign gathers pace.

The fourth Hastings Rail Summit was held on Friday 6 October 2017. Read Summit signals progress.
View Network Rail's presentation here. View the consultants' presentation here.

The fourth meeting of the high-level working group was held on Wednesday 11 October 2017. Read here about the updated business case supporting investment to reduce journey-times. Read the Executive Summary of the consultants' second report of October 2017 here. The summary and full reports can be found here.

The fifth annual Hastings Rail Summit was held on Friday 14 September 2018.

The sixth (and what turned out to be Amber Rudd's final) Hastings Transport Summit was held on Friday 11 October 2019.

The proposal

At the first Hastings Rail Summit, Network Rail’s Route Managing Director for the South East Dave Ward committed to develop the project to bring HS1 services to Hastings during Control Period 5 (2014-19), and to build the partnership with stakeholders needed to deliver the project in Control Period 6 (2019-24). High-speed Javelin-style trains running between London St. Pancras and Eastbourne via Ashford International will achieve a journey time between London St. Pancras and Hastings of just 68 minutes, compared to over 100 minutes via Tonbridge in the peak today. The new service for Hastings and Bexhill will also reduce crowding for passengers on the line through Battle, Tunbridge Wells, Tonbridge, and Sevenoaks to London Bridge and Cannon Street for The City or Charing Cross for the West End.

Railfuture had urged Network Rail to improve the local services earlier by progressing some minor enhancements in CP5 to 2019. We have also urged SELEP to achieve economic growth in Hastings sooner by making funding available so that the project might have been scheduled as an infill between CP5 and CP6. Incremental development of the Marshlink line could realise benefits as follows:
  • Reworking the Southern timetable to provide close connections with domestic HS1 services to/from London at Ashford (achieved in GTR/Southern 2018 timetable), and to reduce journey times by taking advantage of recent line speed improvements (achieved in the post-2012 blockade timetable change)
  • Line speed improvements to remove remaining speed constraints, eg Winchelsea level crossing from 20mph to 60mph, Ore - Doleham from 40mph to 60mph
  • Redoubling the single line section between Rye and Winchelsea, or between Rye and Appledore, to enable a service frequency of two trains per hour: one Ashford-Eastbourne stopping only at major stations, and one Ashford-Hastings serving all stations
  • Remodelling junctions at Ashford which will allow Marshlink line trains to access HS1, to enable HS1 services between Hastings and London St. Pancras in 66-69 minutes, and between Bexhill and London St Pancras in 77-79 minutes, which will attract more passengers and so provide the business case for electrification
  • Electrification between Ore and Ashford International to enable a more reliable service. This will provide the potential for through trains between the east of East Sussex and London, which will promote economic growth in Hastings and Bexhill.
Railfuture will continue to work in partnership with East Sussex and Kent County Councils, Hastings Borough and Rother District Councils, local Members of Parliament (Hastings & Rye, Bexhill & Battle, Ashford), the South East Local Enterprise Partnership, Transport for the South East, and Network Rail, to ensure that this promised project is delivered.
We shall also continue to build the partnership to achieve East Sussex's second priority, of electrifying the Uckfield line and reinstating the missing Uckfield-Lewes link, enabling through services between Brighton and other Sussex coast destinations with the Weald including Tunbridge Wells, and London.

Stay up-to-date with our quarterly branch newsletter railse; latest issue no.154 December 2021.

If you support the Railfuture campaign, wish to keep up-to-date with our activities, or find out more about how YOU can play your part, please join us at Sussex and Coastway.

Meanwhile, other local incremental enhancements are taking place along MarshLink. In January 2017 accessibility works began at Ham Street.