Medway Valley by train

Saturday 1st June 2019

There’s a lovely railway branch line which heads in a north/south direction across the centre of Kent where Southeastern trains shuttle up and down all day between Tonbridge in the Weald and Strood in the more industrial north of the county. It’s a quiet backwater line weaving its way between the main commuter lines heading east/west linking East Kent with London

It takes just over 50 minutes to travel the full journey from one end of the line to the other. Southeastern deploy two trains in the off peak every hour between Tongbridge and Strood with an extra train adding a half hourly frequency between Maidstone West (situated in the centre of the line) and Strood. In peak hours trains don’t make it all the way to Tonbridge but instead run every half hour between Paddock Wood (the station after Tonbridge and where there’s a little bay platform to turnback) and Strood.

Rather than being a dead-end branch line, the Medway Valley Line provides passengers with handy connections at both ends to High Speed Trains whisking you off to Ebbsfleet, Stratford and St Pancras International at Strood and at Tonbridge (or Paddock Wood) trains connect to London Bridge, Waterloo East and Charing Cross.

There are also connections at Tonbridge to the hourly Southern service via Edenbridge to Redhill; where there are connections south to Gatwick Airport (and Brighton) as well as west to Dorking, Guildford and Reading on the GWR diesel train service.

What a shame, now bi-mode trains are becoming fashionable, it isn’t possible to join all these east-west connections up and run a through train from Reading to Redhill, Tonbridge, Maidstone and on to Strood every hour; a bit like a railway M25.

There are two stations in Maidstone on the line, the one after Maidstone West (towards Strood) is called Maidstone Barracks even though the Invicta Park Barracks complex in the county town is a little way north east of the station the other side of the main A229 to Rochester and ironically closer to the main station in Maidstone called Maidstone East on the Victoria to Ashford line. The Barracks are scheduled to close in 2027 but I doubt the station will be renamed. 

The best feature of this lovely branch line is the way it follows the course of the River Medway for most of the route once it turns off the main Tonbridge to Ashford line at Paddock Wood and the tracks head north continuing past such lovely stations as Beltring, Yalding, Wateringbury and East Fairleigh to Maidstone West. The line continues along the course of the River Medway north of Maidstone West but it becomes more urban and industrial in nature.

There’s a designated 28 mile walk all along the River Medway from Tonbridge to Rochester called appropriately enough the Medway Valley Walk; it’s part of the Long Distance Walkers Association portfolio of recommended walks.

Yalding station

I’m not energetic enough to tackle a walk of that length, but I’d noticed the delightful views of the Medway on previous train journeys as I travelled along the line and have long wanted to take a bite-sized walk to savour the views and the tranquil atmosphere alongside the river.

In fine sunny weather last Thursday I got off the train at Yalding which is where the rail tracks begin running alongside the River and took the footpath along the River’s west bank to the next station up the line, the aptly named Wateringbury. It didn’t take long and I was in plenty of time to catch the next northbound train an hour later.

Yalding and Wateringbury have small boat marinas on the River Medway close to both stations which make for a picturesque addition to the scenery.

This line is a real gem in Kent’s busy rail network. It’s why I ranked it No 29 in my Hundred Best Train Journeys at the end of last year. It’s overseen by the Kent Community Partnership who have produced a very informative video on their website about the line and do their best to promote it and share its delights, as I’m doing now.

Roger French

A great Deal in Kent

Sunday 10th March 2019

It’s always a pleasure to visit the Garden of England. My journeys on two days last week included visits to both ends of Kent – to Dover and Deal on the Channel coast in the south east and to Sevenoaks close to the County’s western border with Greater London.

Both Stagecoach South East and Go-Coach Hire, the dominant bus companies in these two areas, are excellent bus operators for the following reasons…..

Screen Shot 2019-03-10 at 17.27.51.pngStagecoach’s attractive bus network in Kent is an excellent example offering comprehensive coverage for passengers as well as ‘behind-the-scenes’ operating efficiency for the company. It includes well used inter-urban links between main urban areas at good frequencies despite some recent reductions (and competition from Southeastern trains), as well as small bespoke town networks and a few great rural routes, some operated by double deck buses due to school peak requirements, which offer fantastic views across the Kent countryside.

Notable among these are the 11 (five journeys Canterbury – Westwood and Broadstairs via the delightfully named Plucks Gutter with its timing point The Dog & Duck), and 17 (hourly Folkestone – Canterbury via the lovely Elham Valley). There’s also the 18 (five journeys Canterbury – Hythe via Wheelbarrow Town) but this is scheduled for single decks. Still a great route though.

IMG_9552.jpgStagecoach South East also craftily link one route with another to provide helpful ‘cross-terminal’ journey opportunities. Southeastern Trains also do this with the rail network such you can get on a High Speed Train at St Pancras and travel via Ashford and Folkestone to Dover round to Deal and Sandwich where the train continues on to Ramsgate and Margate and back via Faversham to St Pancras where it arrives after a 3 hour and 33 minute round trip.

IMG_0722.jpgStagecoach run a ‘circular route’ called the Triangle from Canterbury to Whitstable and Herne Bay which is marketed as Triangle in addition to linking routes 4 and 6 which run similarly between Canterbury and Herne Bay via two different routes and where they link up to also provide a circular ‘triangle’.

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IMG_0797.jpgAnother good example of timetabled through working providing great travel opportunities are the routes I travelled on last Friday – the 80 and 81 which run two buses an hour between Dover and Deal (via slightly different routes – but both giving great views of Dover and its castle) and on to Sandwich (via Hacklinge or Eastry) where they turn into a 43 and continue westwards to Canterbury.

IMG_0860.jpgIMG_0863.jpgBetween Sandwich and Canterbury the 43 runs at an attractive twenty minute frequency with the extra bus an hour commencing in Ramsgate to provide a Ramsgate, Sandwich Canterbury service. It all fits together very nicely, and Sandwich is well worth a visit.

IMG_0942.jpgIMG_0939.jpgAnd best of all Stagecoach South East must be commended for their excellent colour coordinated marketing and publicity for these and the other bus routes they run throughout Kent. It really is a treat to find a colourful network map together with individual leaflets (almost as good as a book!) each with an individual clear map of the route in a geographic context and, where appropriate an extract from the network map to show other routes in the area. They really are exemplars of good timetable leaflet practice.

IMG_0728.jpgI also spotted the network map on display in major points such as Dover’s Pencester Road (albeit inside the now rather worn information office) and at Canterbury in a display case on the bus station’s concourse alongside the travel office with its display of timetables and other tourist leaflets inside.

IMG_0856.jpgAnd the icing on the cake is the colour coding follows through to large easy-to-see bus stop numbers on virtually every bus stop flag. They really were impressive to see and showed a level of attention to detail and excellent intent to provide clear information.

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Bus stop timetable displays are also easy to follow and understand and appeared at every stop.

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It’s so refreshing to see such excellent clear information and just goes to show it can be done.

As is the case around fifty miles over at the western end of the county in Sevenoaks. Here it’s interesting to see Go-Coach Hire Ltd go from strength to strength as they move from being a small time tender operator when they first began in the bus market just over ten years ago to now taking over from Arriva Kent as the network operator in this area.

IMG_0546.jpgOn previous visits to Sevenoaks I’ve been impressed with how Go-Coach have taken over the town’s bus station and proudly emblazoned their bright yellow and purple branding to brighten up what would otherwise be a rather dull wind tunnel of two departure bays.

IMG_0541.jpgThere’s a small travel office with an amazingly friendly and helpful member of staff and an excellent full display of timetable leaflets including those services operated by Arriva thereby providing a much welcome comprehensive coverage of routes operated in the area.

IMG_0656.jpgIMG_0658.jpgI was particularly impressed to see that the out-of-date no-longer-issued maps from Kent County Council which used to be on display in the bus station on previous visits have been replaced by up to date maps of Go-Coach’s network. I spotted them on bus shelters elsewhere in the town too.

IMG_0537.jpgThe bus stop plates also feature both Arriva and Go-Coach’s serves and all clearly presented to appropriate corporate style.

IMG_0572.jpgInterestingly from early next month Arriva Kent are throwing in the towel on local routes 1 and 2 from Sevenoaks to Dunton Green and Kemsing.

IMG_0550.jpgThey’re the routes Arriva converted to the horribly cramped Mercedes Sprinter minibuses a year ago. I had a ride in the first week and knew within a few minutes it would be a complete failure.

Screen Shot 2019-03-10 at 17.15.47.pngCompletely unsuitable for the market and what a shame passenger numbers have obviously plummeted in response to such unattractive vehicles. On Wednesday when I visited larger buses had already supplanted the minibuses on route 2.

IMG_0649.jpgGo-Coach are taking over these routes as part of their expanding network and I hope their local connections and attention to detail in getting things right for passengers will attract enough passengers back to the routes to make it a commercial success for them.

IMG_4118.jpgIt’s interesting, nearly fifty years on from London Country Bus Services being formed in 1970 just how many bus companies now operate in what was the polo mint around London, and increasingly successfully too, after some traumatic times after deregulation and privatisation in the late 1980s. Metrobus in Crawley and Ensignbus in Grays come to mind as top class acts, but Go-Coach are making great strides to make this corner of Kent a great exemplar of how a small network operator can succeed.IMG_0585.jpgSadly, they often say, a bus company’s reputation is only as good as the last journey taken and my attempted journey with Go-Coach didn’t quite work out as planned on Wednesday; but company boss Austin Blackburn was on the case straight away as soon as he saw my tweet and made sure appropriate action was taken and apologies made – and that was impressive and just showed a caring owner giving attention to detail, which is what it’s all about. I’m already looking forward to a return trip and hopefully next time be successful in catching the Wednesday only tendered rural route 405 to West Kingsdown before it ends very soon!

Roger French

PS I spotted the information about Arriva Kent giving up routes 1 and 2 on their website and commendably they refer to the replacements being operated by Go-Coach Hire but a slip of the year shows the date in the headline as 2018 rather than 2019. It seems even when this is pointed out by tweet to Arriva last Wednesday, it still isn’t corrected on their website today. Attention to detail and reacting to feedback and all that…not!

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