Branch Line Britain - celebrating Britain's minor railways

Southern - Ashford review 1

Semaphore signals at the eastern end of Hastings railway station
Ashford to Hastings 22/3/08

Train: 14.30 Ashford to Brighton

Train Operating Company: Southern

Weather: Cloudy

Traction used: Class 171 DMU 2 car unit

Ashford station has been rebuilt in recent years due to the Channel Tunnel Rail link and in my opinion must rank as one of the most soulless stations on the rail network. It is all glass and steel and although it is a busy station, it lacks the character it once had. The train I take originally only went as far as Hastings in British Rail days, but now with privatisation, Southern run them all the way through to Brighton. I am surprised that it is only a two-car unit, especially as it is Easter Saturday. However the train is quite empty - for the moment. We leave a couple of minutes early by my watch and leave the main line to the South West straight away. On the left are the Network Rail sidings; whilst on the right is a circus tent like structure, which is actually an Ashford designer outlet shopping mall. There's the same old terraced type housing on the left, whilst there's already open countryside on the right. But then a large modern housing estate appears on the right, reflecting the amount of new developments that have sprung up in Ashford because of the Channel Tunnel rail link. Finally we leave Ashford behind completely and you notice that the land is quite flat with sheep grazing in the fields. We still seem to be going quite slow - about 30 mph with the A 2070 running parallel to us on the right. We finally speed up to about 50 mph and move into wooded countryside. Ham Street is the first stop and by now the landscape has become more hilly. It's a pleasant country station with parallel platforms. The west platform has its original station building though its windows are boarded up. The east platform has a grey painted wooden shelter, which makes a change from the run of the mill standard bus stop type shelter. As we leave we are on an embankment looking down Ham Street to the left, which is a mixture of old Victorian housing and modern 21st century housing. The land starts becoming flatter again and there's panty of sheep to be seen, grazing on both sides of the track. The land looks quite boggy with several pools of water left from recent downpours. We arrive at Appledore next, which is identical in style to Ham Street, with the same design of station building and wooden shelter. Nearby is the Railway Arms pub, whilst to the north of the station can be seen a piece of track in a yard. Maybe it's waiting for a carriage to be put on it one day. The freight only branch to Dungeness pulls off to the left straight after Appledore and our track is now single. The scenery is now completely flat and wide open as we start to go over Walland Marsh towards Rye. It seems quite similar to the marshland east of Norwich on the Great Yarmouth branch. There's the odd farm to be seen, but not much else. Soon higher land appears on the right, but apart from the odd swan or goose resting in the fields, the scenery is pretty uninspiring. I can just make out Dungeness Power Station to the south in the far distance, but sheep appear to outnumber humans about 100 to 1! At last some houses appear on a hillside to the right, then as we go over the River Rother as Rye appears before us, with its famous bell tower dominating the skyline. The station is a split platform with a wooden structure on the right and the old station building (in excellent condition) on the left. Three's also a lonely signal box opposite, though with its blinds shut, it's difficult to tell if its operational or not. About twenty passengers get on and suddenly the carriage seems a lot fuller. We wait for the Ashford train to come into the other platform, before we move out back onto the single track. We go over a level crossing and another smaller river before we're back into the countryside again. This time there's newly ploughed fields on the left and hills on the right side horizon. We seem to be only going about 30 mph, but it's because of a level crossing - this time, an open one - then we speed up past the remains of a station whose platform can still be seen. It's pouring down now, so the distance looks slightly misty. The landscape is becoming more hilly now and we enter a small cutting with recently cut down trees on the left. We speed through Winchelsea station, which has the message of being one of the Cinque Ports on its station sign. It's now quite wooded on either side of the track and we shoot through Doleman station, which is just a single platform with no shelter. Soon after is Three Oaks, which is also a single platform. There's only trees to be seen now on either side of the track, before we enter Ore Tunnel which is  almost a mile long. On the other side we pass a stabling point for South Eastern units and the track becomes double again. We pass through Ore station, which has been rebuilt with two bus stops and is the limit for South Eastern trains on this section. Then it's another shorter tunnel and soon after we come into Hastings station, after crossing over a viaduct which gives you great views of the houses on the hillside overlooking the town. Hastings station is a mixture of old and new. At the western end are modern electronic signals; whilst at the eastern end there are semaphore signals and a signal box. The station has four platforms, three through and one terminal. The station footbridge is the original one, but a new main station building has been built complete with electronic barriers. Outside on the approach road to the station there is a roundabout with a boat in the middle of it! 

Summary: This mainly single-track branch should remain safe for the foreseeable future, not least because it links Brighton and Eastbourne with the Channel Tunnel railhead at Ashford.                          MC