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As HS2 is approved we look at the story of HS1 Kent's high-speed railway from London to the Channel Tunnel

Last month, perhaps to less attention than might have been expected, the government gave the green light to start construction work on HS2, the new high-speed railway line which will eventually link London with cities in the north of England via Birmingham.

But Kent has lived this moment before. Rhys Griffiths takes a look back at how HS1 changed Kent.

A Southeastern high-speed train travels on HS1 over the River Medway. Picture: Andy Payton
A Southeastern high-speed train travels on HS1 over the River Medway. Picture: Andy Payton

"While the government’s top priority is rightly to combat the spread of coronavirus, protect the NHS and save lives, we cannot delay work on our long-term plan to level up the country," HS2 minister Andrew Stephenson said as he gave the formal ‘notice to proceed’ to the companies tasked with construction of Britain’s new railway.

As with almost any major infrastructure project, the new line has already generated heated debate across the country, and significant column inches have been given to arguing the pros and cons of the scheme.

The proposed rail link, currently the largest infrastructure project in all of Europe, is expected to cost in excess of £100 billion - and given past experiences of delays to huge transport schemes such as Crossrail, it is unlikely to carry any paying passengers much earlier than the 2030s.

So for those living close to the route who are concerned about the impact on properties and the countryside, or for those staking their future business plans on the connectivity and speed of the new tracks, this will feel like an intense debate for the here and now.

But in Kent we have lived this moment before. When the plans for HS1 - initially known as the Channel Tunnel Rail Link - were announced, controversy reigned.

Just as with HS2 or the long-debated third runway at Heathrow, there was argument aplenty - with both sides fighting passionately for their position.

Yet today we have our modern, high-speed railway. Commuters on the morning train hurtle towards London at 140mph, while daytrippers speed in the other direction towards our regenerated coastal towns like Margate and Folkestone for a taste of the Kentish seaside brought that little bit closer to the capital.

Construction of the HS1 railway bridge over the River Medway
Construction of the HS1 railway bridge over the River Medway

If we could return to the 1990s, and the battle over the new high-speed line which consumed so much energy and anger, would we turn back the clock and wish HS1 away? Or is there a lesson about the nature of epic infrastructure projects that shows us why - despite widespread misgivings about the plans for HS2 - moving ahead with the work will one day bequeath a valuable legacy that long outlives the controversy?

Our journey begins in 1987, with the passing of the Channel Tunnel Act authorising the construction of a railway tunnel between the United Kingdom and France. Long dreamt about since the Victorian era and earlier, the eventual completion of the railway line beneath the English Channel from a terminal at Cheriton, near Folkestone, to Sangatte represented a symbolic link of friendship between the two nations, as well as a practical means of physically connecting Britain’s then still state-run railway with the wider continental network.

Long gone were the days of loading passenger wagons onto the Night Ferry at Dover after the run from London Victoria to the coast. Now passengers would soon be able to travel from London to Paris at speeds unimaginable even a generation previous. Well, at least on the French side of the water.

Initially Eurostar trains emerged at Folkestone and joined the regular rail network, sharing tracks with slower local services en route to Waterloo, the first London terminus for international services.

It was not the best advert for our national infrastructure, forcing services which had streaked across northern France at speeds of around 180mph to suddenly fall in behind stopping services calling at towns and villages across the Garden of England. Something needed to be done.

That something was the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, now more commonly known as HS1, and it would be the railway line which would at last allow us Brits to hold our heads a little higher when sat opposite our Gallic cousins on the evening Eurostar from Gare du Nord back to Ashford International and beyond.

Burham people in 1989 protesting against the planned Channel Tunnel Rail Link route, which would run south of their village
Burham people in 1989 protesting against the planned Channel Tunnel Rail Link route, which would run south of their village

The plan was this: a truly high-speed line linking the Channel Tunnel at Folkestone with a reinvigorated international station at St Pancras, the long-neglected William Henry Barlow masterpiece towering over Euston Road. But the start and finish points were the easy part, there was to be years of fighting over the route across Kent.

At the height of that battle in the late 80s and early 90s many people living in the county feared they would be blighted by noise from the train, disruption during the construction and damage to the landscape of the Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

Protest groups were formed, politicians and the civil service were lobbied, and rallies against the coming of the railway were held. One prominent faction was the Detling Rail Action Group, which represented concerned villagers living near the proposed route not far from Maidstone.

Although their concerns were real and their opposition will have certainly influenced decisions on the final scheme, some involved in the protests have now acknowledged their very worst concerns did not come to fruition.

Speaking to the Financial Times in 2012, one member of the pressure group said this of opponents to HS2: "All the government has to do is bring some of them down to Kent and say, ‘Look, these people were up in arms over high-speed rail. Now no one bothers talking about the line'."

That is not to say all in the county were opposed to the project. Many political leaders recognised the opportunity the faster connection to the capital represented, even if they still fought for a plan which would protect against the very worst damage to the environment.

And so, in 1993, the final route was agreed. The line would travel from the Tunnel terminal to Ashford and onwards alongside the M20 before crossing the Medway and reaching a new station just south of the Thames. It would then dive below the river before travelling towards east London, entering tunnels to take trains via Stratford and on to the terminus at St Pancras.

With the route agreed it was the turn of the engineers to deliver. A total of 67 miles of high-speed railway line was to be laid, 152 bridges and other structures constructed, 1.2 million trees and shrubs to be planted and, among the crowning achievements of the entire project, a 1.2km-long viaduct erected alongside the M2 across the River Medway.

The first part of the line was completed in 2003 with the second stage finished in 2007, and on November 14 of that year the Queen officially declared HS1 open. It had cost £5.8 billion.

It took another two years before people living in Kent saw their towns connected to London by high-speed Southeastern services, which initially operated from Dover and Thanet via Ashford and from the Medway Towns. The 140mph 'Javelin' trains slashed journey times, with trips from Ashford to London cut from 81 minutes to 38.

Towns like Dover had spent years lobbying to be included on the initial route map for HS1 domestic services, believing the increased connectivity would be a huge selling point when encouraging people and businesses to relocate to coastal communities.

Some senior figures on the Dover District Council were even known to grumble privately about the inclusion of both Folkestone West and Folkestone Central on the timetables for the new service, since it added crucial minutes to the advertised journey time between Dover Priory and the capital.

It was not long before other communities who had missed out in the earliest days began to lobby hard for the new trains to begin serving their stations, hooking them up to Britain's fastest domestic railway. The service to Dover was extended to Sandwich, Deal, Walmer and Martin Mill in 2011 following a long campaign by commuters in East Kent. The extended service slashed journey times to London from around two hours to one-and-a-half.

That same year services began operating from Maidstone West, bringing the journey time to St Pancras down to 47 minutes. Where there had once been widespread opposition to high-speed rail in the heart of the county, now pressure groups were mobilised to bring the trains to their towns and fight against any threat to downgrade the timetable under future franchising deals.

By the time Southeastern celebrated 10 years of operating the new Hitachi-built high-speed trains in 2019, it was boasting of 100 million passenger journeys taken in a decade, clocking up 48 million miles since launch.

Speaking on the 10th anniversary the town's MP Damian Green said: “It has clearly been the biggest single beneficial change to Ashford’s prosperity. The town’s slogan was 'Best Placed for Britain' and that was because of the fast train links to London and Europe. That is as true now as it was then."

The redevelopment of Ashford International as part of the construction of HS1 put the town's station onto a Eurostar route map which today encompasses Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam and Marseille, while cutting the time to reach London has made it a more attractive place for businesses to relocate.

When the Chapel Down Group, based in Tenterden, decided to open its new Curious Brewery site just five minutes walk from the international station, it cited the improved connectivity as a major factor in the decision. The next big regeneration scheme to be clustered close to the railway will be the Newtown Rail Works project, which will see the historic site transformed into the Ashford International Film Studios, and potentially become home to Netflix or Amazon.

Further down the line, coastal towns like Margate and Folkestone have also benefited from the shorter journey times. Where the coming of the Tunnel in the early 1990s had eventually finished off cross-Channel services from Folkestone harbour, now the town's burgeoning regeneration - fuelled by the wealth of Sir Roger De Haan - was given a boost by the boast of being less than an hour from London.

A report commissioned by the line's operators in 2017 found the economic contribution to Kent's visitor economy stood at an estimated £311 million since domestic high-speed services were launched in 2009, with almost 6,000 jobs created in the tourism industry alone.

Crowds flock to the Folkestone Harbour Arm - one of many attractions luring daytrippers to the Kent coast on high-speed trains. Picture: Alan Langley
Crowds flock to the Folkestone Harbour Arm - one of many attractions luring daytrippers to the Kent coast on high-speed trains. Picture: Alan Langley

And what of the future? There are signs the new fast trains to London may be becoming victims of their own success, with increasing reports of overcrowding during the morning and evening peaks. Damian Green has raised the issue in the House of Commons, warning ministers that unless more rolling stock is forthcoming the problem will only get worse.

Elsewhere, there is once again talk of adding more Kent communities to the network. Plans have been announced for a new £63 million railway station to serve around 12,000 homes likely to be built in the Hoo peninsula over the next two decades; a new station has been proposed as part of ambitious plans for a garden community near Lenham; and the planned garden town of Otterpool Park outside Folkestone could benefit from HS1 services from Westenhanger.

And while the success story of HS1 appears not to have placated the strident opposition to HS2 from some quarters, it seems unlikely many people in Kent would now prefer to swap their seat on the Javelin for life in the slow lane.

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