The opening of a new railway station should be a cause for celebration. The new station, Thanet Parkway, has just opened. Situated on the Ashford–Ramsgate line, between Minster and Ramsgate, just west of the village of Cliffsend, “it will increase rail connectivity between East Kent, London and the wider Kent area by providing access to mainline* and high speed services… (and) provide access to more employment opportunities for local residents,” according to the KCC notices about this project. It cost £44m, funded by SELEP (South East Local Enterprise Partnership); HM Government, New Stations Fund, Thanet District council and KCC.
History of new stations in East Kent
Thanet has not seen a new railway station opening for 97 years, when the Southern Railway did away with all the old separate stations that had been built by the two old pre-grouping railway companies, the London, Chatham and Dover Railway (LCDR), and the South Eastern Railway (SER). In 1923, the 120 railway companies were ‘grouped’ into four groups, of which the Southern Railway was the smallest and included the LCDR and SER. The new line opened in 1926, the year of Queen Elizabeth II’s birth and the general strike. It featured a fine station in Ramsgate, a new mini version at Dumpton, a rebuilt Broadstairs station and built a new station for Margate, which was handy for the beach.
Ramsgate Harbour Station closed at this point and, from 1926, visitors had to walk, use a car, or switch to public transport to reach the harbour at Ramsgate. This was not a problem because the new Ramsgate Station was built to deliver what is now called multi-modal flexibility. In other words, the layout at Ramsgate station made switching between transport modes easy. It was never designed as a commuter station, but picking up and dropping off commuters is also easy as it has an excellent forecourt. Ramsgate’s vaulted concourse and lovely art deco lights are its key features. It is listed and mentioned in Britain’s-100-best-railway-stations by Simon Jenkins.
It is the junction for three lines to Dover, London and the North Kent coast. But Thanet District Council has stated that Ramsgate is not adequate for commuter traffic, even though it has been carrying out this function faultlessly for nearly a century and there is space for a multistory car-park. It could also have been connected to the Sandwich Discovery Park by a fleet of electric vehicles. This fleet is now to be run from the new station at Thanet Parkway.
The opening of Thanet Parkway is no cause for celebration
First, the cost: the original project was estimated at a reasonable £11m, 13 years ago, but now it is reported that Thanet Parkway-station will cost £44m and still there is more to spend. There is an excuse that inflation has increased the cost, but every project has a contingency and this project has ballooned since it was authorised. KCC is now complaining about its finances, but it seems to have stumped up for all the extra cost of this station project.
Thanet Parkway is a very ugly, brutalist building, perched on an embankment and surrounded by a car park. There are virtually no intermodal connections as the bus route that served the area was axed last year. Walking and cycling is constrained because the footpath connects with Cliffsend and, therefore, walking to or from Ramsgate, the nearest conurbation, would take at least an hour. Remarkably, in an age of climate change concern, it is a car dependent project and therefore completely out of step with mission-zero and national planning-practice-guidance on sustainability. It is almost as if KCC took the guidance, hacked it to bits and buried it in the foundations of the station.
Parking charges have not been advertised but will be around £5 to £6 per day. Southeastern intends to run the station without staff, but have decided to staff the station for a provisional six-week period. It is equipped with two (very narrow) platforms, CCTV, automatic ticket machines and two lifts. Southeastern suggests that 100,000 passengers will use the station every year, that’s around 274 per day. Ramsgate has 1.1m passengers per year. (ORR)
Obstacles to access
It would be nice to believe that this new station would prosper but you can already read the runes of a doubtful future.It is to be staffed for the next six weeks but, afterwards, it will become an isolated site *** covered by CCTV with no staff. No staff, no help, just the ticket machines.
Getting to the station is not without problems. All vehicles will have to use the Lord of the Manor interchange which is a well known choke point; the access roads are also grossly congested as many travellers will have to surmount the road network at Westwood Cross, which suffers from substantial congestion. Hengist Road, which is the access road to the station, is an accident blackspot. Public transport access is nil, as the bus service intended to connect with the station has already been cut.** Pedestrian access is poor as the only footpath leads to Cliffsend and not Thanet.
Dubious contribution to local economy
We are told that spending £44m on this project will help the economy of Thanet, but it seems the only beneficiary will be the Sandwich Discovery Park. Thanet workers are employed there, but most will travel to work by car or possibly cycle. Thanet has received other such ‘transformational’ projects, such as the Turner Contemporary gallery and, while it may be popular with some visitors to Thanet, it is difficult to see any significant improvement in reducing deprivation in Thanet due to the Turner Contemporary. In fact the growth of thanet-airbnb sites is reducing private rental properties, and the ‘vibrant arts scene’ may be exacerbating this problem, which is a perverse outcome.
The Thanet Parkway project is part of a narrative which goes like this: much of the former industrial areas of the UK have struggled to rebuild their economies in a globalised, post industrial, ’information economy’. Coastal communities have suffered similar problems because, either the fishing industry has declined, or competition from overseas package holidays has reduced the visitor economy of coastal resort towns. Boosting the visitor economy by one-off projects such as Turner Contemporary, only has limited effect as hospitality jobs are not regarded as ‘real jobs’ by job seekers, and they are often precarious.
The curse of one-off capital projects
Central Government has added to the problem by creating various funding pots of capital, which encourages one-off project applications, when what is needed is long term increased funding in education to increase skills and educational attainment, and social housing, which will give those living in deprived areas, jobs and increased spend money, because housing costs as part of the family budget will fall.
Coastal communities will have a distinct advantage if spending on green energy projects is increased by means of a UK version of the US Inflation Reduction Act, as offshore wind energy is a growth area and the UK is blessed with a large part (50%) of Europe’s tidal-power potential.
Improving educational outcomes will enable those living in deprived areas to access high paid work in the green energy industries that cannot be held back much longer. The UK Govt review-of-net-zero or Mission Zero, sets out how the new green future can be achieved: all that is required is leadership and determination.
Thanet’s problems will not be solved by one-off projects, promoted by special interest groups and subject to groupthink by KCC and TDC, but by tackling the educational inequalities in which 75% of children receive a lower standard of education, and where many of Kent’s grammar schools are among the least inclusive in the uk. What is needed is more spending to improve the life chances of those living in deprived areas. Educational expenditure is a priority, but connectivity is necessary so that workers can access jobs. Kent has suffered continual cuts in bus services; £44m would buy a lot of service improvements or more up-to-date buses, that are more reliable, cheaper to run, and lower in emissions.
In the wrong place, for the wrong purpose
Finally, we come to the design. Either the architects really thought a slab sided building that dominates the skyline was optimal, or they did not care. It is an appalling design and poor value for £44m.With a difficult and narrow site located on an embankment, an island platform structure is the most optimal. Ramsgate is an island platform station. Many parkway stations are similarly configured such as Didcot. The architects at Thanet chose instead two linear platforms with separate lifts. Most parkway stations are transport hubs, but not Thanet. It is an outlier, and for that reason it may become like Ebbsfleet international, built in the wrong place for the wrong purpose. I suspect that this is a project too big to fail, but I think it will be a dead weight on the finances of KCC and Network Rail for decades to come.
* Currently the station is served by high speed only, the line going via Canterbury West. It is not served by trains going via Dover.
** There is a rumour that the station will be served eventually by the Thanet Loop bus, but how that will be done is questionable as currently the Loop, with frequent buses every 8–10 minutes, does not go through Cliffsend, and to do so would widen its circular route
*** latest report from a local resident is that some nocturnal thrill seekers are already “doughnutting” their vehicles in the car-park, where a car is made to turn in a circle from a stationary position by revving the engine hard, stamping on the brake, and burning rubber. Evidently the police have been called several times.