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Thameslink service to London remains on hold as 'semi-fast' route is mooted

Thursday 11th February 2021

MAJOR concerns have been raised over controversial plans to introduce a “semi-fast” rail link between Maidstone and London, writes Ciaran Duggan.

The long-awaited Thameslink service from Maidstone East to Cambridge via London St Pancras and Blackfriars appears to have been put on hold again.

It has emerged that there are “practical constraints” to the government-led plans, including no direct train link from London Bridge to Blackfriars, while signals on the proposed under-the-hour rail route need to be upgraded.

A “semi-fast” rail link has been offered as an alternative to run from Maidstone East to Blackfriars via the existing Catford Loop, passing through West Malling, Borough Green, Swanley, Denmark Hill and Elephant and Castle.

But it is feared it could take passengers up to an hour and 15 minutes to travel 35 miles, which is longer than existing services from Maidstone East to London Victoria.

There have been objections over the plans from the Sevenoaks Rail Travellers Association, Maidstone Borough Council and West Malling Parish Council.

At a virtual Kent County Council (KCC) scrutiny meeting yesterday, 13 county councillors of all political stripes urged the Department for Transport to rethink.

KCC’s main opposition leader, Cllr Rob Bird (Lib Dem), of Maidstone Central, warned the County Town could be left with a “second rate” service for years. 

He said: “I am seriously concerned that we could be stuck with a slower service for another decade, if not more, and that is not good enough.”

Defending the plans during the virtual debate, KCC’s rail manager Stephen Gasche said the Catford Loop would take only 65 minutes from Maidstone to London.

He said: “The journey times vary enormously, depending on the rail network, but it would be more accurate to describe this as a semi-fast service.”

A faster rail link was first promised in 2016 but has been delayed at least four times by Whitehall.

Rail Minister Chris Heaton-Harris gave tentative support for the Thameslink rail service in a virtual meeting two months ago, but in light of the latest logistical problems it remains unclear whether he will pursue the proposals.