Save Lenham Railway Station

27 / 02 / 22

We have launched our Save Lenham Rail Station campaign following recent intelligence confirming that Maidstone Borough Council (MBC) are considering a potential option to close the existing Lenham rail station in favour of a new rail station to serve the proposed Heathlands ‘new town’ in Lenham Heath.

The Maidstone Local Plan Review continues to include Heathlands as a spatial policy. SOHL has repeatedly made the case along with Lenham Parish Council and others that Lenham is an inherently unsustainable location, the furthest away from main urban centres including Maidstone and Ashford.

As MBC continue to force their Heathlands proposition through, they have been advised by external consultants that the new development must include a new railway station for it to be considered ‘sustainable’. One consultant’s report draws parallels to the Kings Hill development in West Malling which does not benefit from a rail station within suitable walking distance. The report states:

The Kings Hill example gives a perfect view into the future if a walkable rail station is not
provided within Heathlands from a very early stage. It is more than certain that without the
station, offsite vehicle impacts could be double those outlined by RSK, and that would lead to
car reliance and ingrained unsustainable travel patterns, contrary to the Garden Communities
Prospectus and government guidance. Even in a best case some 1,000 trips in each direction
on the A20 to Ashford and Maidstone would lead to significant traffic problems and impacts.

MBC have paid for a rail feasibility report to be produced for Heathlands. This was produced in 2021. This feasibility work specifically looked at for specific options as follows:

  1. Improvements to Lenham station and access to it from the proposed development (possibly a new Lenham station east of Headcorn Road to allow a transport interchange).
  2. A new station (Lenham-Heathlands) approximately midway between Lenham and Heathlands to serve both communities.
  3. A new station at Heathlands in addition to Lenham.
  4. Replacement of Lenham by Heathlands with improvements to access from Lenham to Harrietsham (west) and Heathlands (east).

We know that from a planning perspective, Heathlands would very unlikely be considered sustainable and therefore not secure planning permission unless a new rail station was at the centre of the proposed development or within the confines of the development boundary. MBC ideally want an additional station on the line at Lenham Heath midway between Lenham and Charing (option 3 above) to unlock the Heathlands development.

However, we know how hard it is to secure new transport infrastructure and this would require significant investment and support from Network Rail and the Department for Transport. As part of the Local Plan process Network Rail confirmed their position on the matter in a letter to MBC dated 24 June 2021 here. In this, Network Rail set out caution in assuming that they can secure a new station for Heathlands. The letter states:

“…the impact of adding a station to the network, particularly at a time when industry costs are heavily scrutinized, must be fully evaluated. Adding a new station call can worsen the service for existing users from other stations and would need to be fully accounted for in the next stage of development to ensure the benefits outweigh these. The operating costs of the station may be a key issue in the nearer term, particularly if house building and therefore passenger growth is gradual. It may be beneficial to provide a level of train service to Heathlands residents that is exceeds demand, if it facilitates other strategic outcomes such as modal shift or improved housing viability. This scenario may increase industry subsidy without a consequential increase in revenue at least in the short term.”

This is essentially saying that when looking at the business case for a new station, you need to think about the disbenefit to other stations as well as the disbenefit to the additional journey time to those passengers already on the train. For a new station to secure support, the benefits of it must outweigh these disbenefits. That is very difficult in new public transport infrastructure business cases.

Furthermore, Network Rail are warning the developers (MBC and Homes England for Heathlands) that they not only will have to foot the cost of the capital investment of a new station – i.e. building the station – but also the operating cost impact of a new station. This means that a new station at Heathlands would have to be built at the very early stage of the development – arguably before any homes have been built – and then the developer has to take the cost risk for the station and services stopping until sufficient demand has materialised in the form of new passengers from the new houses. In Heathlands case, the buildout could last 20-30 years meaning MBC and Homes England would be on the hook for operating subsidy for three decades or more. This is simply not tenable.

The prospect of a new station in addition to Lenham is therefore remote. The option more suitable to unlock this development then is to move existing Lenham station either to the centre of the proposed Heathlands development (option 4) or to an alternative location half way between the centre of Heathlands and Lenham (option 2). The feasibility report looked at locations as little as 600m from existing Lenham station up to around 1-1.5 miles away.

Once fully built, the 5,000 homes and 12,000 residents would be deemed to consider a greater demand for rail services than the c1,300 homes and c3,000 residents in Lenham today. Therefore any business case would likely opt for a new station in the centre of Heathlands (option 4) as opposed to a station closer to existing Lenham village. Existing residents would have to rely on ‘improvements to access’ in the form of a higher frequency bus, and more direct walking and cycle ways.

All in all, the risk to Lenham’s existing rail station is high. We therefore consider it threatened. We assume that MBC’s reluctance to put the rail feasibility report in the public domain is likely because the conclusion is inferior for the existing Lenham community. We also know that MBC seem to be dragging their heels on doing the next stage of work as requested by Network Rail – a Strategic Outline Business Case (SOBC). Our suspicion on this is that again they’ve been told that this isn’t going to conclude with a favourable outcome and therefore it’s safer to hold out doing this further work pleading ignorance then doing the necessary work and having to swallow the unpalatable outcome.

Lenham’s residents along with those from surrounding villages must protect our existing rail station as a community asset. It is simply not acceptable to ‘steal’ from an existing community and ‘give’ to a new community just to ram an unsustainable development through the planning system.

Please sign our petition here to add your support to saving Lenham rail station.