Ashford and the Hi-Speed effect

Ashford from above

Ashford from above - Credit: Archant

The UK’s only domestic high-speed rail service is celebrating its fifth anniversary and for one rapidly expanding Kent town, the 140mph train service has transformed its economic fortunes

High-speed 1 trains slashed journey times from Ashford to the capital by more than half to just 38 minutes when it was launched in December 2009.

Five years on and Ashford business leaders say HS1 has given the town a massive competitive edge. “It has transformed our economic fortunes,” says Cllr Gerry Clarkson, Leader of Ashford Borough Council.

He says the fast train service has attracted businesses and created jobs, improved the quality of life of commuters, drawn more people to live in Kent and has put Ashford in poll position as the place to access London and European markets.

Gerry adds: “HS1 is the most important economic boost to the south east in years and has strengthened Ashford’s reputation as the powerhouse economy of Kent.

“We have unrivalled road and rail links which, together with highly competitive office and house prices and a dynamic growth agenda, makes the town the smart choice for businesses, investors and residents alike. With our connectivity, we have truly now become the only UK international town.”

He said high-speed services have also made a huge difference to Ashford’s commuter population, “giving them two hours of their life back every day”.

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This popularity is confirmed by operator Southeastern, which says that more than 70 per cent of journeys from Ashford are now made on high-speed trains.

Excellent connectivity is a major reason why Ashford has been revealed as the best place to do business in Kent, in a poll by inward investment agency Locate in Kent.

The agency’s chief executive Paul Wookey says: “Since the introduction of the HS1 services there is no doubt that the perception of Ashford as a business location has improved, as proven in our perception study. It’s important that we now capitalise on Ashford’s excellent connectivity to London and Europe as the economy continues to improve and levels of inward investment activity increase.”

Expansion of the high-speed service is planned, says Richard Dean, Southeastern’s train services director. “We will offer a new high-speed ‘rounder’ service from January that will call at more stations and offer more seats for passengers at key points on our network.

“High-speed has been a transformational service for rail passengers in East Kent. Its introduction had an impact throughout the region by encouraging more visitors to come to Kent, benefitng businesses and freeing capacity on mainline services as long-distance commuters have moved onto the high-speed trains.

“Capacity is a big issue, and while passengers respond enthusiastically to reduced journey times, which can make a massive difference to their lives, increasing rail capacity also has a big impact on a much greater number of people.

“Over the next four years we’ll be able to expand our high-speed service further, taking it to more stations and opening up journey opportunities for even more passengers,” adds Richard.

According to French newspaper Le Monde, a number of French companies have relocated to Ashford in recent years, with all of them citing top-class rail links as part of the reason. Electronics after-sales firm SBE, foods supplements specialist Sante Verte, and web TV channel Eclypsia have joined established French employers like perfumes manufacturer Givaudan in making the Kent town their home.

Other big name companies and investors attracted to the town over the past five years include Smith Medical and Verifone, Waitrose, John Lewis At Home and Debenhams and The Document Warehouse.

Jo James, chief executive of the Kent Invicta Chamber of Commerce, says: “Ashford has always been known for its connectivity and I believe that fast rail services have put us on the business map.

“We’ve seen businesses move to Ashford as a result of HS1 and we know of existing firms who have decided to expand thanks to the introduction of fast trains. I’ve been contacted by groups involved in the HS2 project keen to know what impact HS1 has had on the economy here and I’ve told them that it’s been an overwhelming success.

“Business needs to be connected and Ashford needs to stay one step ahead of other commercial centres in the UK and Europe if we are to remain successful.

“Nowhere else in the UK can match our connectivity: we have a network of Eurostar trains to Europe, we are only 38 minutes from central London, 15 from the Channel Tunnel and 25 from Dover Port.

“The Government has announced funding for J10a on the M20 and London Ashford Airport has embarked on a multi-million-pound investment as part of its expansion plans at Lydd. The town has had great potential for a long time; with HS1 in place and a business-friendly local authority driving the growth agenda, we are seeing that potential being delivered.”

According to Tim Allen, a Partner at leading development and infrastructure consultancy Peter Brett Associates, Ashford is the only ‘mature town’ on the high-speed line. Ashford’s connectivity makes it the “perfect choice”, he says, adding that the consultancy made a conscious decision to be situated within walking distance of Ashford International Station.

“Much of our work is client facing and I can receive a call from a client in London in the morning and be with them early afternoon,” says Tim. “I often arrive in London more quickly than some of the project partners based in the capital.”

HS1 has also been attracting a steady flow of London property buyers keen to take advantage of Ashford’s attractive house prices. According to Alex Davies, Head of Country Houses at Hobbs Parker estate agents, HS1 is a key factor.

“As confidence has come back into the property market in East Kent we are seeing continued interest in HS1 from buyers. The train is a constant in many of our enquiries, especially from people looking to move into the area and with a need or interest in travelling into London regularly,” he says.

“Interestingly, the spectrum of buyers is broader than many predicted when HS1 launched. We are seeing more people who may only need access to London on an irregular basis, from self-employed professionals working mainly from home to concert musicians, TV producers and advertising executives, as well as the newly retired keen to tap into London’s culture.

“Along with the traditional commuter, perhaps cashing in a two-bed flat in Islington and needing to get into the City, we are getting increasing numbers of buyers relocating from more traditional commuting hotspots such as Chislehurst, Sevenoaks, parts of Surrey and Essex.”

“There is a growing realisation among buyers that by selling a modest home in a traditional commuter belt town and relocating to Ashford they can not only get more property for their money, but also a shorter travel time to work,” adds Alex.

“There are other incentives: people are also drawn to our schools, the countryside and good transport links in general, such as the M20, Eurostar and Le Shuttle to France.

“Many of our enquiries are based upon proximity or ease of access to Ashford International, which means that certain villages around Ashford are likely to see a degree of price inflation. As HS1 opened during the recession, the predicted positive impact on the property market may have been slower than anticipated, but the last two years have shown a positive affect on demand and prices in the property market.

“It may not have been an overnight sensation, but in recent years HS1 has been a significant boost for Ashford and the surrounding area.” n