By this time next week the public inquiry into Rother Valley Railway’s (RVR) controversial planning application to construct a new heritage railway link between Bodiam and Robertsbridge as well as new level crossings – including one on the fast flowing A21 – will be underway.
The inquiry will be led by Ian Jenkins, an inspector appointed by the Secretary of State for Transport, and follows seven years of applications, appeals and delays, with plans first being drawn up as far back as 2007 and RVR having previously been granted planning permission by Rother District Council in 2017.
If the Public Inquiry backs the plan it could mean RVR is granted powers to compulsorily purchase the land they need as well as powers to temporarily stop highways. The Order would also authorise level crossings across the B2244 Junction Road at Udiam, Salehurst bridleway and the A21 and Northbridge Street at Robertsbridge.
Objectors fear the level crossings in particular could cause disruptions to road traffic, the one proposed on the A21 would force the closure of the road for almost a minute ten times a day.
The plan is not for a commuter train to run along the proposed line, but rather a steam train attraction. RVR claim this steam train would benefit the local economy to the tune of £2.6m-£3.2m per year. The controversial plan has even caused difference of opinion between local Conservative MPs.
Amber Rudd, former MP of Hastings and Rye, spoke out against the level crossings in particular: “Not only can these level crossings be dangerous, there are also a number of damaging environmental effects which result from the traffic congestion the crossing would cause. I believe it will limit tourists’ accessibility and limit our opportunity to achieve economic growth. Furthermore, Network Rail’s work to close level crossings shows just how dangerous they can be.”
Rudd’s successor, Sally-Ann Hart, has also called for the rejection of the plans, outlining her position in a document written in 2018 when she was a councillor on Rother District Council, she said: “The Applicant has failed to adequately address concerns regarding increased traffic and parking in Robertsbridge and the safety of a level crossing across the main trunk road to Hastings, Battle, Bexhill and rural Rother.
“RVR asserted in its application that no additional parking provision would be required in Robertsbridge. Severe parking issues already exist in Robertsbridge, without additional cars likely to park to use the steam railway. Commuters, not wishing to pay the station car park charges, park their cars near the station in residential areas.
“It is pertinent that Highway England lodged its objection to RVR’s application, for reasons including safety and on economic grounds.”
Conversely, fellow Huw Merriman, MP for Bexhill and Battle, supports the plans, he says: ‘While I understand and sympathise with the landowners who do not wish to sell their land to the RVR, I fully support this project as I believe the economic benefits to the local area present an unrivalled opportunity to deliver long-term jobs for local residents as well as wider economic benefits to the local tourism and hospitality sectors.
“I have carefully considered the impact of a new level crossing on journey times for the A21. Given that the railway will only operate outside of peak times, and modelling has demonstrated a negligible impact on traffic on the A21 during other times of the day, I do not consider the installation of a level crossing to be a reason to object to the project.”
RVR say they have: “Written to everyone who submitted objection to the project; worked with the Environment Agency to address any concerns they have raised; met regularly with Highways England to develop the design they have requested; agreed any requirements as set by Statutory Authorities; visited the sites with representatives of landowners and made a number of offers to buy the small areas of necessary land and lastly received confirmation from the Office of Road and Rail that following a range of studies and designs, the level crossings can be implemented and operated safely.”
The public inquiry will begin next Tuesday July 6th and is expected to last for 16 days.