Published: 00:01, 31 May 2018
| Updated: 08:50, 31 May 2018
High-speed trains linking Ashford to Hastings could become a reality as soon as 2022.
The service would run on the existing Marshlink line between the towns, which would be updated with overhead electric wires to cater for the 140mph trains.
It means travelling between Ashford and Hastings could take as little as 20 minutes, drastically slashing trip times to Brighton.
Council bosses and the Department for Transport have already earmarked £200,000 to draw up more detailed plans.
If the scheme goes ahead, it will see Hastings linked with the HS1 line to St Pancras in London.
Network Rail spokesman Chris Denham says the west side of Ashford International – where Southern trains on the Marshlink service currently terminate – would need to undergo a major overhaul in the project’s first phase.
He said: “Linking Marshlink to HS1 will require a rebuilding of the railway junction at the west end of Ashford station, putting overhead electric wires up in platform two.
“That has a built-in benefit as it will take some of the pressure off platforms five and six.
“The plan will give us a good view of potential costs and time-scales and we expect it around autumn this year.
“For the scheme to be affordable, it will need to be delivered at the same time as the track in the area becomes life-expired anyway, which is in about 2022.”
The proposal surfaced when Network Rail revealed a fresh set of objectives for London and Kent train travel up until 2024.
The existing Marshlink line is one of the few in the south east that has not been electrified, with diesel trains running on the service.
Passengers currently face lengthy journey times between Ashford and Hastings, with trains stopping at Hamstreet and Appledore before moving into East Sussex.
Trains running on the proposed high-speed line would stop at Rye before continuing to Hastings.
Mr Denham says the project largely depends on how funding plays out, but upgrades at Ashford International could begin as soon as next year.
He said: “To run a service from HS1 to Hastings it will need new bi-mode trains, either with a diesel engine or battery pack, to be designed and ordered just for that line.
“Much depends on what the bidders for the next Kent train franchise, due to start next year, come up with.”
A Kent County Council spokesman confirmed the authority is in talks with East Sussex County Council (ESCC) and Network Rail about the plans.
An ESCC spokesman said: “Clearly the improvements needed to bring high-speed rail into East Sussex are still some way off, but we are working with Network Rail and our partners with the aim of bringing forward the infrastructure work required to enable this to happen.”