Those clever French certainly pulled a fast one this week. While Network Rail was boasting about spending billions on lengthening station platforms, a French train was showing us the future with a record-breaking run of more than 350mph.
OK, so the test train was only five carriages long, and when the TGV Est opens to passengers on June 10, the trains will mosey along at 200mph. Nevertheless, the French now have four high- speed lines emanating in each compass direction from Paris and there are plans for several extensions,
Here, the 67-mile, 186mph Channel tunnel rail link between London St Pancras and Folkestone has been dubbed “high speed one” as an optimistic suggestion that there are more to come after it opens in November. Don’t bank on it. Britain missed out on high-speed trains because of a combination of short-sightedness, dithering, miserliness and a deep mistrust of the railways.
In the 70s, when Japan was already operating its successful bullet train and the French were planning TGV, we tried to run faster trains on existing tracks. For a while it was successful, with the popular 125mph train immortalised in adverts by Jimmy Savile.
But to go faster, Britain would need to invest in high-speed track. Now it’s too late. Building a new line from London to the north would cost an estimated £30bn to £40bn and represent a planning nightmare. Nimbys and the Treasury will combine to kill off any such scheme. There are compensations: you can still get from London to most major cities in two or three hours because we are smaller than France. Anyway, zapping along at excessive speed seems very 90s. Why not relax instead and enjoy the journey: in these ever more eco-conscious days, slow travel will become as fashionable as slow food.