Can Britain can catch up in the high-speed rail race?

Does Britain have the will to overhaul its creaking rail network and gain ground on its neighbours?

France and Britain are not well known for seeing eye-to-eye, but here’s one thing at least on which the two nations agree. ‘High-speed rail is an idea whose time has come,’ transport secretary Lord Adonis enthused at the Labour Party Conference in Brighton this September. ‘The question is not whether but when and how Britain follows suit.’ Quite a change of mood for a country that until 2007 had no high-speed rail routes at all. Now we have just one – the 68-mile High Speed One (HS1) route from London to Kent, shared with cross-channel Eurostar services.

Across la Manche, this enthusiasm is shared, if rather better established – France is, after all, the European home of fast trains. ‘The time has never been more favourable for high speed,’ agrees Mireille Faugère, formidable boss of SNCF Voyages, which runs France’s flagship fleet of trains à grande vitesse – the iconic TGVs.

She adds politely: ‘I’m delighted about High Speed Two’ – the company set up this year to plan the UK’s next fast line, to the North. Trains on HS2 will travel first to Birmingham, then all the way to Scotland, provided it actually gets built and avoids the pitfalls of such grands projets in the UK: derailment by political vacillation or economic expediency.

Cheers, too, from continental high-speed suppliers. ‘The Department for Transport is starting from a real vision,’ gushes Bruno Sol-Rolland, vice president of mainline rolling stock for French firm Alstom, maker of the TGV.

Back in Blighty, Iain Coucher, chief executive of the UK track operation Network Rail, returns the compliment. ‘There are lots of lessons we can learn from the French about high-speed maintenance and operation,’ he says.

Truly an entente cordiale. And although the UK – the country that invented railways – may not make many trains any more, we may have contributed something of value to our cross-channel oppos after all – a viable operating scheme. Rail networks across Europe are converging on the structure that initially caused such trauma in the UK – separate operators for track and trains – even if, as in France or Germany, both remain under state control.

It may have been a troubled journey, but now all the trauma of privatisation and so forth is past. ‘Like everything in the UK, the system is very well worked out from a legal point of view,’ says Faugère – unlike in France, where she grumbles that she has no contract with RFF, France’s Network Rail. And since there is no French regulator comparable to the UK’s Office of Rail Regulation, she has no comeback over access charges or network delays either.

There’s no reason to doubt this cross-Channel meeting of minds. Yet the fine words can’t conceal the vast distance that separates the two sides – a thousand miles, to be precise, the difference between the total length of the high-speed lines that spider out all over France and the UK’s solitary 68-mile stretch.

Or consider France’s 400 TGV train sets, many of them second-generation double-deckers, compared with the UK’s rather less impressive and much slower 53 Pendolinos and 29 Hitachi Javelins, plying just two routes: the (upgraded but not truly high-speed) West Coast route and the Eurostar line from Kent, which is about to open for commuter traffic.

The comparisons won’t improve any time soon. Under the impulse of swelling cities, clogged-up roads and threats of global warming, Mrs Thatcher’s least favourite mode of transport is undergoing its biggest boom globally since the 19th-century investment bubble that started it all. An international comparison of high-speed lines planned or in place by 2025 shows China (5,678 miles) streaking ahead of 15 other nations, including Spain (4,415), France (4,135) and Japan (3,774), whose Shinkansen bullet train showed the rest of the world what was possible back in the 1960s.

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