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Town derailed
Planning – 27 July 2007

The switching of Eurostar's Kent hub to Ebbsfleet faces claims that it will fail growth in Ashford and lead to a rise in road traffic congestion. Mark Smulian investigates.

How could introducing a train service lead to increased road traffic congestion? It may sound odd, but that is what Kent planners fear could happen when Eurostar train services start to run from London St Pancras to Paris and Brussels in November on the new high-speed line.

The operator plans to make Ebbsfleet its main intermediate stop, a specially built station just off the M25 near the Bluewater shopping centre. Only a handful of trains would then serve what is presently the intermediate stop at Ashford, the centre of one of the government's growth areas.

It could mean that Ebbsfleet becomes a sort of gigantic park-and-ride, given that it is in easy driving range for more people than Ashford. In turn, more traffic would be drawn to a part of the M25 that is already notorious for congestion. Drivers who now use Ashford will have to double back towards London to catch most trains.

Among Eurostar's main selling points is the speed it offers for journeys between city centres, which compares favourably with airports once the time taken to drive to them and then complete check-in has been factored in. This is all very well if you are starting in London, but what about passengers from across southern England who are used to using Ashford? The town has enjoyed direct links with not only Paris and Brussels but also Lille, the heart of the Nord-Pas de Calais region, with which Kent is engaged in various cross-border regeneration partnerships.

Ashford to lose continental connections

Under Eurostar's proposed timetable, Ashford would lose all but a handful of Paris trains and its entire Brussels service. The latter has a knock-on effect in that it would be impossible to reach Lille from Ashford - other than by one daily service to Euro Disney. Lille is a hub for transfers to the French high-speed TGV network.

Kent County Council head of planning and transport strategy Mick Sutch says: "Concentrating services at Ebbsfleet will pull traffic towards London on the A2 and M25, which are already heavily used. Eurostar sells Ebbsfleet as being close to the motorway and it will attract people who use Waterloo, increasing traffic in Kent."

He adds: "Another problem is that Ebbsfleet is not connected to the domestic network. Northfleet station is not far away, but there is no easy way to walk between the two and the Northfleet line only serves north Kent. Eurostar's decision is bad from a public transport viewpoint."

The local authority has sent a delegation to the European Commission to argue the case for keeping the Ashford services. It maintains that losing them would damage cross-border work with Nord-Pas de Calais because only a vestigial service to Lille would remain. Council cabinet member for regeneration Roger Gough explains: "It has been important for Ashford to have good links to Europe and many people have bought homes or set up businesses on that basis. But now the goalposts have been moved."

Kent, East Sussex, West Sussex and Hampshire County Council leaders, along with most of the region's district councils and MPs, signed a protest letter complaining that Eurostar's proposal would be a "major blow to the government's regeneration plans for east Kent, seriously affecting passengers from Kent, East Sussex and beyond who would add to the traffic build-up and congestion on the M20, M25 and A2-M2 by driving some 30 miles in the wrong direction - towards London - to board a Brussels train".

The signatories say this would be "hardly a good advert in this eco-friendly age" and it would "send out the wrong signal for the promotion of Ashford as a designated government growth area, weakening its ability to attract companies in search of international connections".

Eurostar insists that it is switching services from Ashford to Ebbsfleet because its data show that this is the point from which its customers want to travel. "We did a lot of research and found that 90 per cent of Ashford passengers arrive by road and two-thirds of those would find driving to Ebbsfleet a shorter or similar journey," says a Eurostar spokesman. "Ebbsfleet is next to Bluewater. It is on the M25 with very good road links and people will use it."

Congestion fears arise from station shift

This, though, is the problem as Kent County Council sees it. Ebbsfleet has parking spaces for 9,000 cars, all of which must drive across the county to reach it, while Ashford is earmarked for 30,000 new homes under government growth plans and needs to be as attractive as possible to those who might invest there.

But Eurostar is a business and it points out that most of its market is for non-stop services to and from the capital. Each stop on the way slows down its trains, making them less competitive with airlines, the company asserts. "We recognise that there is a market in Ashford and the town will still have trains to Paris and Euro Disney," its spokesman concedes. "But when we looked at Brussels, the number of people going there from Ashford was very low. It was not commercially viable to stop Brussels trains there."

The problems of whether councils have enough power over transport operators to secure regeneration and traffic policy objectives are, it seems, not limited to the bus industry.

WEEKDAY TRAIN SERVICES

NOW

Ashford- Paris 7

Ashford-Brussels (via Lille) 4

Ashford- Euro Disney (via Lille) 1

PROPOSED

Ashford-Paris 3

Ashford-Brussels (via Lille) 0

Ashford-Euro Disney (via Lille) 1

Ebbsfleet-Paris 7

Ebbsfleet-Brussels (via Lille) 4