Phil Marsh

Folkestone Harbour Branch to close?

Published: 2nd January 2014

Network Rail proposal to close iconic seaside branchline

When the railways were privatised in April 1994, there was a lot of legal protection and processes enshrined in the legislation. The idea at the time was that Railtrack, now Network Rail, (NR), would manage a gentle decline of the network in all senses.

This didn’t happen because of the upsurge in rail travel and freight traffic which was unforeseen at that time so lines did not close. Ironically, without the 1993 Railways Act, some lines may have been closed. So now we are used to hearing about lines reopening and extra trains running on different services, that could only be imagined in 1994.

So because of the legislation, when any bit of railway line is to be closed because there is no regular traffic, then NR has to adhere to a strict legal process called Network Change (NC). This kicks off when they notify the Industry and the Department for Transport (DfT) that it proposes to close some line such the Folkestone Harbour branch line and Folkestone Harbour station. They then have to consult with ‘stakeholders’ from within the rail industry and outside such as local authorities.

The line was formerly used by boat trains linking in with cross-channel ferry services but when the Channel Tunnel opened in 1993, ferry traffic dropped off from Folkestone. The line was used by charter trains such as the Orient Express and steam charters but has not been used by regular passenger services as part of the national rail network since 2001.

Victorian legacy

The line is extremely steep with an incline of 1 in 30 which meant several engines were needed for all trains making them expensive operations. Network Rail has not really carried out any maintenance whatsoever and just one train a year has operated in recent years. This was to satisfy a Victorian contractual obligation to keep the line open as if no trains ran, the original land-owner could reclaim the land the line was constructed on.

A financial incline?

NR says that they recently carried out an assessment of the line which concluded “it would not be financially appropriate or responsible to continue to maintain it.”

The line is made more difficult to operate as it runs onto the mainline with an east facing junction known as Folkestone East Junction with its own signalbox and now NR wants the line closed at the earliest opportunity.

The Consultation was launched in late November to allow all interested parties to submit their views on the proposals.

They said

Fiona Taylor, Network Rail’s route managing director for Kent, said: “We have carried out an extensive assessment of the Folkestone Harbour branch line, taking all aspects into consideration. We feel it would be irresponsible of us to continue to maintain this unused line, largely at the taxpayers’ expense, at a time when we are doing all we can to make the rest of our business more efficient.

“The consultation is an opportunity to comment on these proposals and ensure that all opinions are taken into consideration before a final decision is made.”

Deadline

The Consultation closes on 21 February 2014 and all comments must be received by this date. Representations can be sent to: Folkestone Harbour Branch Consultation, Department for Transport, Great Minster House, 33 Horseferry Road, London, SW1P 4DR, or sent to folkestoneharbourbranch.consultation@dft.gsi.gov.uk

They can also be copied to: Network Rail, Folkestone Harbour Branch Consultation, c/o Strategic Planning, Waterloo General Offices, Waterloo station, London, SE1 8SW or folkestone.harbour@networkrail.co.uk

The proposals are available on the Department for Transport’s website at www.dft.gov.uk/consultations/open

Copies of Network Rail’s initial assessment can be read at: Department for Transport, Great Minster House, 33 Horseferry Road, London, SW1P 4DR. It is also available from folkestoneharbourbranch.consultation@dft.gsi.gov.uk

What next for the Weymouth Quay branch?

There is another similar line to Weymouth Quay which runs from just outside Weymouth station, but is not connected to it. This line has had no trains whatsoever this century and was used to connect with the Channel Island Ferries.

These brought thousands of passengers and a huge quantity of market produce from the Channel Islands such as tomatoes, potatoes and flowers. The branch is prone to flooding at the high spring and autumn tides and runs alongside the quay with road traffic driving over it as the rails are sunk in the tarmac.

What condition the trackbed is here is more difficult to establish given that it has been buried for decades without any inspection. The Folkestone Harbour branch is laid as a traditional railway on a formation and using ballast.

There have been moves to both close this branch and to bring it back into use to help expand the use of the Quayside. But whatever the outcome, there is no budget or reason to keep this line open either. Because there has been no trains for nearly 15 years, road users are used to parking near the railway line and pedestrians no longer look out for trains. These used to run with a man walking in front of the train warning people to stand clear as the train progressed.

Some attempts were made to run a tram along the route a few years ago such as is used on the Stourbridge to Stourbridge Junction line but the trials failed and now the company is understood to be in financial difficulties.

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