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Last Updated: Tuesday, 4 September 2007, 15:58 GMT 16:58 UK
UK 'lagging behind speedy Europe'
By Marie Jackson
BBC News

Eurostar train
High speed all the way - the new Eurostar service arrives in London

Eurostar has made its inaugural journey on a new 186mph (300km/h) line from Folkestone to London, but when it comes to high-speed links, why is the UK so far behind its European neighbours?

When the TGV track from Paris to Lille first opened in 1993 - a year before the Channel Tunnel opened - the then French president Francois Mitterrand chided Britain for its technological backwardness.

"Next year, we will set off at high speed across the northern plains, then push into the Channel Tunnel, and afterwards we will be able to dream at a very slow speed in Britain to admire the landscapes," he said.

He was right. Until now, trains hurtled through northern France, but once through the tunnel and on British soil, they were forced to put the brakes on because they shared a track with commuter services coming in and out of London.

Now a publicly-funded 68 mile (110km) line, known as High Speed 1, will allow Eurostar trains to keep moving at similar speeds on both sides of the channel.

Magnetic levitation

While some say it marks Britain's entry into the European high-speed rail club, it could actually be the end of the line as the government says its priority is not speed but cutting congestion and improving reliability.

The government is trying to push high-speed links into the long grass
Philip Haigh
Rail Magazine

"Any future high-speed line would cost billions," said a Department for Transport spokeswoman.

"We're not ruling out looking at this again in future, but any proposals must be good value for money, increase capacity, and deliver for the environment."

Elsewhere, things have been happening much faster.

Japan began developing its high-speed network in the 1960s and holds the absolute train speed record of 361mph. It was set by a Japanese magnetic levitation train - Maglev - in 2003.

The French meanwhile began their own journey towards high speed travel a decade later.

Its high-speed train (TGV) holds the world record of 356mph for a train on conventional rails, beating the previous TGV record of 320mph set in 1990.

Germany has a dense network of high-speed tracks, and high-speed lines run through Spain, Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands.

Graphic: high speed rail around the world

Britain's slow start is due to a combination of factors including government policy, high costs and geography, says Rail Magazine.

Its business editor, Philip Haigh, said: "It costs an awful lot of money and we have had successive governments that have been more interested in capturing votes from motorists than developing a properly integrated transport network."

This latest project set the public purse back 800m for the redevelopment of St Pancras International station and a further 5bn to build the line. This works out at about 73.5m per mile of track.

Geographical problems

In comparison, figures supplied in a Parliamentary answer in 2005 suggest to build one mile of a three-lane motorway costs 28.4m.

Mr Haigh added there were greater benefits to high-speed travel in countries such as France, where major cities are further apart.

"Our cities are much closer together. The geography of the country makes it much harder to make a case for high speed links," he said.

"If you were to run a line from London to Edinburgh or London to Glasgow, everybody would want stations all along the route, and you would lose the benefits."

So what is the future for high-speed travel in the UK?

Our focus is on improving congestion and reliability, and performance and safety
Department for Transport spokeswoman

Aside from High Speed 1, some significant steps towards faster services have been made in recent years.

A number of UK train operators have services which run at speeds of up to 125 mph.

Virgin's Pendolino trains set a record of three hours, 55 minutes and 27 seconds for a journey between London and Glasgow last year, while the fastest journey between London and Manchester was one hour, 53 minutes and 52 seconds in 2004.

And from 2009, Japanese bullet trains, which can reach speeds of 140mph, will run from Kent to central London.

Mr Haigh does not believe this will be Britain's last high speed track, but thinks any more are unlikely to be built before 2020 at the earliest.

"At the moment, the government is trying to push high-speed links into the long grass," he said.

Meanwhile, regular talk of a high-speed north-south rail link between London and Scotland - the cost of which would run into billions - has yet to receive financial backing from the government.

A DfT spokeswoman added: "Our focus now is on improving congestion and reliability, which is why, in our recent White Paper, we outlined a network that will cope with more than 20% growth in the next seven years, and improve performance and safety."

Map: high speed routes in Europe
There is no single globally agreed definition of what constitutes a high speed rail line, but the European Union defines them broadly as:

Recently-built lines designed specifically for high speed travel, where speeds of at least 250 km/h [150 mph] are attained
Upgraded but generally older lines where speeds of at least 200 km/h [124 mph] are possible


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