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Kent's high-speed rail line shows why HS2 is important, says Ashford MP Damian Green

The success of Kent’s high-speed rail network demonstrates the role HS2 has to play in the country’s economic recovery after coronavirus, according to MP Damian Green.

Here he tells how he has seen the positive impact of the service at first hand in his Ashford constituency and across the whole county...

An archive photo of Kent's high-speed line showing a Hitachi train on the outskirts of Ashford making a night-time trial run to London St Pancras in 2008. Picture: Gary Browne
An archive photo of Kent's high-speed line showing a Hitachi train on the outskirts of Ashford making a night-time trial run to London St Pancras in 2008. Picture: Gary Browne

Kent’s high-speed rail network demonstrates the role HS2 has to play in our economic recovery.

When you emerge from Ashford station, you are greeted by a variety of new buildings and institutions.

They range from a brewery/restaurant to a multi-storey office block, a cinema complex and a Further Education College.

What links them is that they were only built because Ashford has high-speed rail.

During the ongoing lockdown, some have questioned whether major projects such as HS2 should go ahead.

Ashford International station has become surrounded by developments in recent years, with its direct links to London on the high-speed line drawing developers to the area. Picture: Ady Kerry/Ashford Borough Council
Ashford International station has become surrounded by developments in recent years, with its direct links to London on the high-speed line drawing developers to the area. Picture: Ady Kerry/Ashford Borough Council

But as the country looks to its post Covid-19 recovery, it seems to me that Ashford, and Kent more broadly, provide a blueprint for the transformative impact high-speed rail could have at a national level.

In a new report published today, High-Speed Rail: London and South East Voices brings together representatives from politics, business and industry to speak to the benefits of high-speed rail in our region.

In my own contribution, I make the case that the arrival of the domestic and international high-speed services has undoubtedly been the most significant factor in making my constituency of Ashford attractive to inward investment for half a century.

Being 38 minutes from central London, as well as two-and-a-half hours from the centre of Paris and Brussels, makes the town the ideal place to set up a new business or expand an existing one.

Ashford MP Damian Green lives in Charing – about a mile from the HS1 line
Ashford MP Damian Green lives in Charing – about a mile from the HS1 line

The extra demand created by those who work in these new businesses means that the leisure facilities offered in the town are incomparably better than they were 10 years ago.

Of course it is not only my constituents who benefit from HS1.

Every year the national economy benefits to the tune of £427 million from the extra activity created by the service.

Most of this comes from the shorter journey times, which are equally welcome in personal terms by the 15 million domestic and 11 million international passengers carried each year.

One of the most ridiculous arguments used against high-speed rail in general is that “It’s only cutting 20 minutes or half an hour off the journey, so why spend all this money?”

Hitachi 'bullet trains' in a maintenance facility in Ashford in 2008
Hitachi 'bullet trains' in a maintenance facility in Ashford in 2008

If you are taking 10 journeys a week on a high-speed line for 46 weeks of the year, you add up all those half hours and it means you have been given a big chunk of your life back.

There are also environmental benefits.

Estimates of HS1 usage suggest that about four million passengers have switched from using cars or planes.

This not only means a significant reduction in carbon emissions from these journeys, it produces better air quality, reduced noise pollution, and lower traffic accident rates.

Noise is a particular issue for me, as I can remember those who campaigned against the route before it was built said it would be intolerable to live near.

This busy junction linking Victoria Road, Beaver Road and Avenue Jacques Faucheux close to Ashford International features the Chapel Down brewery. Picture: Ady Kerry/Ashford Borough Council
This busy junction linking Victoria Road, Beaver Road and Avenue Jacques Faucheux close to Ashford International features the Chapel Down brewery. Picture: Ady Kerry/Ashford Borough Council

I live about a mile from the line and have never heard a train pass, partly, I suspect because of the M20 motorway running alongside the track.

As for international travel on the line, there are £66m of environmental benefits from those who choose not to fly.

This shift from air to rail reduces annual emissions by the equivalent of 750,000 tonnes of CO2 a year, or 60,000 short-haul flights.

Entrenching and increasing these gains will be essential to reaching our net zero goals.

Much of the advantage goes to those who use it for commuting to work.

The QE2 Bridge at Dartford can be seen from the HS1 line. Picture: Chris Denham
The QE2 Bridge at Dartford can be seen from the HS1 line. Picture: Chris Denham
A view of the River Medway from the HS1 train. Picture: Chris Denham
A view of the River Medway from the HS1 train. Picture: Chris Denham

There is a great attraction in paying Kent housing prices while earning London wages.

Average property prices in the HS1 catchment area in Kent, at £280,000, are about half the levels in the commuter catchment area of south east London.

164,000 more households are less than an hour from central London.

It is proving the way for many young individuals and families to take the first step on the housing ladder.

But it is not just a commuter railway, and I hope that in the future, once we are through the worst of this terrible virus, we will enhance the current efforts being made to promote tourism in Kent via the railway.

Ashford College and the Connect 38 office block at Dover Place dominate the skyline in this photo from September 2018. Picture: Ady Kerry/Ashford Borough Council
Ashford College and the Connect 38 office block at Dover Place dominate the skyline in this photo from September 2018. Picture: Ady Kerry/Ashford Borough Council

For these very welcome tourists, half have indicated that the availability of high-speed services was a factor in their decision to visit.

One in 10 say they would not have visited Kent without HS1.

Now that we are developing new attractions such as the Kent wine trail, this tourist business will be important for the future prosperity of the county as we all get back on our feet.

Whether I look at HS1 from the perspective of my constituency, from the whole of Kent, or from a national perspective, the verdict is overwhelmingly positive.

The area around the station has been the centre of a lot of development in recent years. This shot includes the Curious Brewery, Connect 38 office block, Ashford College and The Coachworks, which is a temporary leisure complex in Dover Place. Picture: Ady Kerry/Ashford Borough Council
The area around the station has been the centre of a lot of development in recent years. This shot includes the Curious Brewery, Connect 38 office block, Ashford College and The Coachworks, which is a temporary leisure complex in Dover Place. Picture: Ady Kerry/Ashford Borough Council

Indeed, even from a global perspective the move towards a less polluting form of transport is good for the planet.

In the context of the HS2 debate, it is true that the construction phase is painful for anyone living along the route.

But the long term benefits are so great that I have always supported HS2, because I want other communities to enjoy the benefits that Ashford has seen since the advent of high-speed rail.

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