Background: Passenger Trains through the Channel Tunnel
Ashford has been a railway hub town for 180 years: the London-Dover line (built 1842-1845), Ashford-Ramsgate via Canterbury (1846), the Marsh line to Hastings (1851), the line to Maidstone and on to London Victoria (1884), and the most impressive, the HighSpeed line to the Channel tunnel (opened 1995). When the railway works was first established at Ashford (1843) Newtown was built with 300 houses for the railway workers. Ever since, Ashford’s economy has been closely linked to the railway. When the town was designated a “Growth area” in 2003, this decision to plan for huge new housing developments was to allow for influx of people with jobs in new businesses, many attracted by cross-Channel links.
History of the Channel Tunnel
Although there had been various proposals to build a tunnel under the Channel (including a proposal made to Napoleon, then planning to invade England!), the engineering of such infrastructure only came to reality from 1987, when the Channel Tunnel Act was passed in UK Parliament, and legislation through the French Assembly and Senate the same year. It was decided to build a railway tunnel because a road tunnel would generate too many poisonous fumes.
The projected budget was £5.5bn in 1985, but in fact the cost was eventually £9bn. It was financed entirely by private capital, either shareholders or debt, initially under the name “Groupe Eurotunnel” which changed its name to Getlink in 2017. It only started to make a profit in 2011. By 2019 its revenue was €1.085b with net income €159m. Although the conditions during the pandemic needed extra financial discipline, Getlink now reports revenue of €1.6bn, with consolidated profit of €252m. This includes the revenue from the tunnel’s electric link between France and UK.
The Channel Tunnel Act of 1987 mandated that the tunnel’s capacity be split 50-50 between a car-rail shuttle service and long-distance trains between London and European cities. The shuttle between Folkestone and Calais is managed by EuroTunnel and the passenger rail service, which is the main focus of this campaign, has since the beginning been run by Eurostar.
The high-speed railway HS1
The Chunnel, connecting Cheriton, Folkestone to Sangatte, Calais, and consisting of 2 railway lines and one service tunnel, was completed in 1995. The Eurostar service, connecting London Waterloo with Gare du Nord in Paris and Gare du Midi in Brussels, started running in May of that year.
The high-speed railway across northern France was developed more quickly than in Kent, where the old rail routes had too many level crossings. The route chosen for new rail lines ran into much public opposition, for instance at Detling. So, for the first 12 years of the Chunnel, the high-speed trains streaked across northern France but had to slow down for the 65 miles between the tunnel’s exit at Folkestone and the then terminus, London Waterloo.
This route was already electrified (in 1966) but by means of a “third rail” rather than overhead wires. Meanwhile, the HighSpeed line (HS1) with overhead wires was constructed across Kent, mostly alongside the M20, at a cost of £5.8bn, mostly borrowed public money. This debt will continue to be paid out by the government at rate of some £166m per year for next 60 years.
The route was to include a new station at Ebbsfleet to fit with planning for population and industrial expansion in south Thames area, and then under the Thames, also a new station at Stratford (strategic for the Olympic Park in 2012) and then on to the beautifully refurbished St. Pancras station.
Stopping at stations in Kent
Ashford Station was rebuilt with extra platforms for HS1 in 1994. It was renamed Ashford International and had 12 Eurostar trains stopping there each day while the new HS1 line was under construction.
HS1 was opened in 2007. The number of Eurostars stopping at Ashford reduced to four a day to France, and nothing to Brussels, after Ebbsfleet opened. There were strong objections from Ashford, including a petition signed by 11,000, so a single train per day Ashford-Brussels was reinstated in 2009 with some additional weekend services.
No international trains have ever stopped at the newly built Stratford International, which is separated from Stratford’s domestic station by a shopping centre and now purely serves the highspeed line between Ashford and London St Pancras.
When Eurostar proposed to upgrade trains to the new e324, this necessitated a signalling upgrade at the Ashford Spurs (the lines connecting HS1 to the station platforms). Some £10m was raised by 2018, via SELEP (South East Local Economic Partnership) and with some EU funds, to upgrade the signalling so that the new Eurostars could stop at Ashford. While this work was ongoing, passengers scheduled to get off at Ashford had to be re-routed via Ebbsfleet and ferried back to Ashford on HS1. The signalling work was only just completed when the pandemic started and Eurostars numbers were drastically cut, with the stops at both Ebbsfleet and Ashford completely removed from timetables.
In 2020 the list of destinations from Ashford by Eurostar included Paris, Disneyland, Lille, Calais Fretun Avignon, Brussels, Bourg St Maurice (ski train) and Moutiers (ski train). During the pandemic, these trains all ceased along with the stops at Ebbsfleet and Ashford.
The economic case for international HS railway to and from Kent
Eurostar has stated that it is not intending to resume services to Ashford, not until 2025, if then, as it is concentrating on more profitable city-to-city routes, having just taken over the Thalys network.
Passengers from Kent must now factor in the extra time and expense to travel to London St Pancras for their Eurostars, which then convey them back though Kent on their way to France or Belgium.This does not just impact those individuals who based their relocation to Ashford on the expectation of the previous easy access to Eurostar, but has profound implications for Ashford because of it’s unique position at the centre of its own railway network.
The arguments made in the SELEP proposal point out that Ashford is connected by rail to 10 of the 12 Kent districts, that the passenger numbers are 196560 at Ashford International, with a 60/40 split of people travelling for leisure or business. It was also stated that 1000 jobs in Ashford were linked to the international rail services at the station.
It has been estimated that the international rail services bring direct economic benefit of £281m to Kent, and that with multiplier effect of tourist spend, some £2bn with 3600 jobs. In 2020 the CEO of HS1 reckoned the railway brought 400000 people within commuter distance to London, thereby needing the 15000 affordable homes which were being built in the vicinity. Such rail travel takes 6000 vehicles off the road.
Ashford Borough Council which has invested money in development linked to Ashford International station has lists of firms that came to Ashford because of the ease of cross-Channel rail travel. They include Curious Brewery adjacent to the station, and also the plans for an international Film studio on the site of the old railway works.
It is therefore vital for the town to reinstate the cross-Channel rail links. Help us achieve this by signing the petition.
Last updated on February 8th, 2024