For many years, indeed, back to the age of Steam, train travel from Ashford to London at it’s fastest has been around 1hr 10mins. Commuters have sat through slam door trains which have had to last 40 years and travellers making their way to Northern parts have had to suffer the long slog and a usually packed Underground Train through London up to Euston or St.Pancreas.
In recent years, this became a bit better with the new Automatic Door Trains which although comfortable did seem to only run well when it was a dry day, the sun rose at 6.04am and there was an air temperature between 16 and 20 degrees.
But although there was a new comfort zone, customers still had to suffer the same timings, the usual crawl through London Bridge and the inevitable wait for a platform to become clear at either Waterloo East or Charing Cross.
Just to rub salt into the wound, they could see Eurostars hurtling through at 140mph on a very underused set of tracks.
After much negotiation, Southeastern Trains not only got the rights to use the Eurostar lines but got the money for 140mph Trains to be especially built by Hitachi, hopefully just as efficient as their Hi-Fi Equipment !
Yesterday was my first chance to experience the new service. I was coming back from Southampton, which although meant a Tube journey up to St. Panreas, promised to knock my overall journey time down by some 45 minutes, almost the same time it takes by Car.
I arrived at St.Pancreas and I have to say I was most impressed by the set up. I remember well the romance of old Train Stations and Steam Engines, but for this modern world, the place screamed out clean, tidy, organised and efficient.
The Concourse is naturally filled to the brim with ‘get it quick’ Cafes and take aways, the new addition to the ever changing travelling experience is a large Sushi Bar. Not for me personally, but the people sitting in it seemed to be enjoying themselves and it does make a change for the infamous Railway Sandwich which walked along beside you rather than being placed in a Paper Bag!
I boarded the 12.42 service which was scheduled to arrive in Ashford at 13.20 – 38 minutes!
The interior is quite clinical, pale blues and greys. Gone are the advertisements enticing you to go to Devon for your holidays and the posters with completely confusing maps where everything is colour coded and not for those with ageing eyes who can’t tell the difference between yellow and brown too well. But the seats were comfortable and although for a shorter journey than some trains, the leg room was good.
Spot on time and after a very formal and polite PA Announcement from the Conductor, the train left. It was disappointing that after only a few meters, the train swept down into a tunnel. I had hoped for a few unseen before views, but so be it.
From there you’re following the M20 and it’s then you realise the speed you are travelling. I think of the times when I’ve driven along there after two hours of the M27, A30, M25 and M26 with tiresome eyes and slight fears of something going wrong. This doesn’t make you miss the car at all.
Sooner than you know it, the On Train Manager (!!!) announces you’ll be arriving in Ashford shortly etc. You’re there, 38 minutes and dead on time!
So at last, the people of Kent have something to be proud of again in their Railway. Ashford Train Station itself has changed out of all recognition since I started working on the Railway in 1989, now a bustling modern piece of Architecture it has become a landmark of the town. In fact, the young people of Ashford were asked what in the Town were they most impressed with and over 70% said the Station.
Although not everyone’s cup of tea, it is a Railway Station for now and the future.
Maybe, just maybe, the railways are turning the corner, get the third rail out the way and replace the whole South Eastern system with overhead electricity and could be ‘there’ rather than ‘almost’
Times of trains from Ashford and other Stations in Kent to London St. Pancreas can be found on the Southeastern Trains Website.