The Local Plan has been dogged with problems and two attempts to introduce a Local Plan failed and were withdrawn. With the pressure to build more houses, the latest Local Plan has to deliver just under 30,000 homes with around 16,000 on the Hoo Peninsula.
The growth in the area has not been welcomed by local residents who have seen many green fields developed and the strategy to grow Hoo St. Werbergh from a large village to a small town. Without an up to date Local Plan, developers have been able to put forward their own sites. The Hoo Peninsula has a high level of environmental protection (international, regional and local), especially on the marshes round the Thames and Medway Coastline and has poor road connectivity – just one dual -carriageway road serves the peninsula and that connects to the main part of the Medway Towns and London at a very congested roundabout, part of the Medway Towns Northern Bypass that also serves the Medway Tunnel. The location of the roundabout means that other engineering solutions to increase the capacity through that junction to cater for the growth in the area (a flyover or underpass) at that roundabout is not possible.
In earlier consultation on the emerging Local Plan a number of local organisations, led by Railfuture Kent, two parish councils, a local amenity society and the Kent Community Rail Partnership saw the potential for a railway solution to help. At the same time the Network Rail Kent Study was being reviewed and the possible use of the Freight line was raised by Railfuture Kent. There was a positive response from both Medway Council and Network Rail (South East Region). Although developer contributions could have been a source of funding, this may have been protracted and problems with the road would still exist, so Medway Council applied for a Housing Infrastructure grant of £170m which was awarded in November 2019, days before the General Election was called. The fund saw £67m for the rail solution, £86m for a new road to bypass the roundabout and join and exit the Medway Northern bypass on new slip roads to and from the London direction, the rest of the grant would be used for community facilities, especially new country parks. The grant would also need to be spent relatively quickly.
The rail options are going through the Network Rail GRIP process and is now finishing Grip 2 and going into Grip 3 (Grip 7 sees the handover of the project). In the meantime Network Rail have been active on the project and most of the track and wooden sleepers replaced. A station location just to the north of Hoo (formerly the Sharnal Street Station) has been identified as a transport interchange for cars, buses, bikes etc. The provisional services are for a two trains per hour peak service to London (via Gravesend/Dartford/Lewisham) via the existing chord on the North Kent Line and an all-day service to Strood (via a reinstated chord). Ideally this service would be extended to the Medway towns. As the branch is not electrified, the solution will be key to the service that can be offered. Diesel has been ruled out, and as the Southeastern rolling stock is third rail, overhead electricity would be very expensive as it would need new rolling stock, likewise any battery solution. It is possible that third rail could be a practical solution as it is only 6 -8 miles of branch line to reach Hoo and this could lead to the Strood services being combined with the Maidstone/Paddock Wood (Medway Valley Line) services.
With the growth of freight services on the line, all the way to Grain, some passing loops may also be required. Another station at Cliffe/Cliffe Woods was suggested by campaigners, but with limited housing growth in that area there is no current business case. Previously there were a number of halts on the line, but located some distance from the villages they served. Further up the line most of the track bed of the Allhallows Branch was sold to a residential chalet park so any re-introduction there is very difficult.
There will be community involvement in the project going forward, via the Kent Community Rail Partnership to help sense check the plans and liaise with local communities to promote and sustain the new line. Network Rail have investigated options and potential for the future and a further phase is possible.
It has not been a loud campaign, but designed to work with the key players. There are still some resident groups who oppose the railway as they see it as supporting the residential growth, although that growth will still happen – without the infrastructure! There is also positive interest from some and a Facebook Page on the Hundred of Hoo railway has been kept up to date with progress. The ACorP, the national community rail organisation have welcomed the involvement by the community at the early stage as well. Many did not see the potential and were sceptical that it would happen, but it is on its way. Most of the key elements are in place, now to deliver.
Medway Council news article
The Hundred of Hoo Railway Campaign Group