Protests about the proposed route of High Speed 2 from London to the Midlands and the North will provoke hollow laughter in Kent. I remember reporting on marches from South Darenth and Sutton-at-Hone that demonstrated fierce opposition to the initial route.
There was the admission that a map had been drawn up on an official’s dining room table using out of date information and putting the route through a new housing estate near Blue Bell Hill, Chatham. When a Mid Kent Parkway station was proposed between Medway and Maidstone, there was an outcry that the “green lung” would be removed and prompt the creation of a “Medstone” or “Maidway” conurbation.
There was dismay with the proposal to put the link down the pretty Nashenden Valley. When construction started, there was outrage over the “scar on the landscape.”
I can hardly remember a good thing being said about the proposed railway, wherever it went. Maidstone council bowed to this anti-sentiment and voted not to have anything to do with what eventually became HS1 And yet, and yet...
Taking a lesson from the French city of Lille, which battled for the TGV line to go through its heart, Ashford council fought tooth and nail to have the service re-routed through the centre of the town. Look what that decision has done to the prosperity and potential of the town.
Commuter journeys have been transformed. Look at the potential for regeneration in Dover, Margate and Folkestone from the presence of what is a brilliant service on state-of-the-art Hitachi trains. Look at the great advertisement for the county. Kent, a railway back-marker since the 1800s, is no longer on the wrong side of the tracks.
While third-rail trains were stuck in the snow, HS1 kept on rolling. More than seven million passengers took HS1 in its first year and I bet that figure will be a lot higher next year. It is a powerful economic driver for the county, raises our game and is proving a powerful incentive for firms to move to the county.
Just as 19th century steam trains and track came to blend into the countryside, with pressure groups lobbying to preserve threatened lines, so the railway that sparked so much protest in Mid and North West Kent is now part of our landscape. Nothing much to protest about now. The engineers did a great job.
Maidstone is left on the sidelines, now pleading for a high-speed station that was once there for the taking. Prosperity is slowly shifting to Ashford and will in time flow to Dover, Margate and Folkestone. House prices will rise disproportionately in towns with good access to the trains. A Manston Parkway station is on the cards.
HS2 protesters should look to the Kent experience and see that while they should ensure the route is tweaked here and there, and tunnelled under beautiful places, there is so much to gain from high-speed rail in terms of greener travel and greater convenience in a modern world. Things we fear in advance often come to be loved. In a 100 years’ time, HS2 and HS1 will be celebrated as much as the steam railways of another era.