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Renewed calls for Crossrail extension to North Kent could place county on London Underground map

Demand on the railways has fallen sharply during lockdown but council leaders remain confident the need to extend Crossrail to the county is as pressing as ever.

Kent is the only one of the Home Counties not served by Crossrail 1 or 2, known as the Elizabeth Line, on the London Underground map.

Passenger numbers have fallen dramatically during the lockdown
Passenger numbers have fallen dramatically during the lockdown

The government suspended all rail franchise agreements in March as it sought to prevent train companies collapsing owing to Covid-19.

But there was movement on the country's transport network earlier this month as Crossrail's chief declared “significant milestones” towards its “journey to trial running”.

Early plans for the £18m rail project, which was originally due to open in 2018, had included running the line out towards Gravesend.

But this was later curbed and a review in 2004 recommended instead stopping at Abbey Wood.

Gravesham and Dartford council leaders John Burden and Jeremy Kite have now reignited their calls for Crossrail to be extended into north Kent.

Dartford council leader Cllr Jeremy Kite has backed the proposals to extend Crossrail to Ebbsfleet Picture: Steve Crispe
Dartford council leader Cllr Jeremy Kite has backed the proposals to extend Crossrail to Ebbsfleet Picture: Steve Crispe

Both have previously said it would be “short-sighted” to ignore huge developments in the area like Ebbsfleet Garden City and the planned London Resort theme park in Swanscombe.

The duo are united in their bid to recover the local economy which has been hit hard by the stringent measures of the lockdown.

They say key infrastructure projects such as Crossrail will not only be strategically important in the long term but also provide much needed construction jobs right now.

The Crossrail to Ebbsfleet partnership was set up in 2016 and was tasked with overseeing work in support of an extension but has been hampered by the repeat stalling of the first phase of the project dubbed Crossrail 1.

Once completed, the campaign has repeatedly called for the route to continue from the stop in Abbey Wood calling at Dartford, Greenhithe, Stone Crossing, Swanscombe and then Ebbsfleet Garden City.

Last year, the extension was given renewed optimism after being provided with nearly £5m in funding by the government to investigate further options to bring the Elizabeth line to Ebbsfleet.

MPs and council leaders delivered the statement to then rail minister Jo Johnson
MPs and council leaders delivered the statement to then rail minister Jo Johnson

Dartford council leader Cllr Jeremy Kite is responsible for running the borough's affairs, of which a large proportion of residents are London commuters.

Last month, he signed off on new cycle lanes as the government called on local authorities to reconfigure roads and parking spaces to adapt to life once lockdown is lifted.

He mentioned how the council would need to "adapt and change" to people's revised attitudes and new approaches to working, whether that be adjusted hours or working from home.

But he stopped short of predicting there would be a rapid decline in rail use, adding it was too early to say how much of an impact the crisis will have on passenger behaviours.

"We have got to start planning our way somewhere," he said. "We need to move from a static economy to a more versatile one.

"We can't build a city like Ebbsfleet and then not have a great rail link."

Leader of Gravesham council Cllr John Burden believes key infrastructure projects like Crossrail are crucial to the county's future
Leader of Gravesham council Cllr John Burden believes key infrastructure projects like Crossrail are crucial to the county's future

Gravesham council leader John Burden is in agreement with his neighbouring council leader on the need for strategic investment in transport.

"There will be a demand for buses, trams and Crossrail," he said.

Cllr Burden said once the economy had got back to full capacity there would be a need for projects such as these more than ever.

In addition to serving commuter demand, he said it was also vitally important for future investment in schemes such as the planned London Resort theme park in Swanscombe.

He said: "London Resort is looking more positive than it has done for a long time and will increase demand - they (visitors) will come by Crossrail."

The Crossrail to Ebbsfleet campaign says the extension would support often-overlooked areas, such as Gravesham and Dartford, with high levels of social and economic need.

The first phase of the Elizabeth line has been subject to delays
The first phase of the Elizabeth line has been subject to delays

But long-suffering commuters along the Bexleyheath line, which runs from Lewisham to Dartford, say the project is a missed opportunity to match demand to where it is needed most.

Nicholas Hair is a former signaller at Network Rail, the company tasked with undertaking nearly £38 billion worth of upgrades to the network, including Crossrail.

He launched the Lewisham and Bexleyheath Community Rail Partnership last year with a view to exploring the benefits of campaigns such as the Bakerloo and Elizabeth line extensions.

The railway worker said the pandemic and the suspension of rail franchises had given fresh impetus for a rethink to ensure commuters in both south London and North Kent get a better deal.

He believes communities in areas such as Dartford and Gravesend will be better served by extending to those regions where there is already existing demand, via Erith and Belvedere in Bexley.

Mr Hair said: "The current coronavirus issue gives exceptional stimulus for spending with a view to recouping the money multiple times by getting Crossrail out to Maidstone, Medway, Gravesend and Dartford.

Workers have returned to the site of the Crossrail development
Workers have returned to the site of the Crossrail development

He said it would be wise to consider whether the demand for a service to Ebbsfleet would be the same post Covid-19.

"We can take serious advantage of the changes to habits and work practices," he said.

"We should probably expect that around 20% less people will travel on trains at all, or at the very least perhaps only for one day per week.

"A further 10% may only work in London two or three days per week, meaning existing capacity issues can be heavily relieved."

Mr Hair said the extension proposal to Ebbsfleet was flawed in principle, adding he did not see the practicality in branching out simply on the basis it served onwards travel via the Eurostar.

"Even before coronavirus, Brexit was at the forefront of people's minds," he said.

Nicholas Hair runs the Bexleyheath and Lewisham Community rail partnership
Nicholas Hair runs the Bexleyheath and Lewisham Community rail partnership

"Equally, whilst Eurostar connectivity from Ebbsfleet to Paris and Brussels is convenient for a company that happens to partner or trade with a firm in Brussels, Lille or Paris it is unlikely that this is significant enough in number to then warrant Crossrail going there."

He hastened to add these changes would also need serious investment in infrastructure upgrades but was confident this would reap greater rewards in the long term.

"Let us be completely clear, it would require modelling but with political willpower it is achievable," he said.

"Before we do something quite daft in the form of procuring, for example, many hundreds of new trains of which only 80% have a future post-Crossrail extension, we can seriously ask what sort of fleet and strategy we need.

"We can do everything from deciding to improve bus services to certain stations, to getting people ready for changed habits and even opening up development land.

"It is also a good time to then model the service demand and levels post-Crossrail extension and see just how wide-reaching those changes would be."

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