High-speed link 365 days away

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The Independent Online

The countdown to the opening of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link will begin tomorrow when the backers of the £5.8bn high-speed line announce that it will enter service in exactly a year.

The 68-mile link from Folkestone in Kent to London's St Pancras station, to be renamed High Speed One, will be Britain's first new railway line in a century and will cut journey times to Paris and Brussels by 20 minutes.

But a highly-critical report last year from the National Audit Office, the parliamentary spending watchdog, said the economic justification for the project remained "marginal". It also warned that taxpayers could have to foot an extra bill for £400m in addition to the £2bn of direct grants paid to its developer London & Continental Railways (LCR).

LCR and Eurostar, the main operator on the line, plan to increase frequencies and passenger numbers when the line enters service next November. Eurostar will carry around 8.5 million passengers this year. LCR will also say it is ready to build a second North-South high-speed line if ministers approve the plan put forward by Network Rail.

Eurostar believes that moving its main London terminus from the current location at Waterloo to St Pancras will open up a huge market north of London to rail travel to the Continent. The change would make travelling by raila much more attractive and environmentally sound option for passengers from as far afield as Derby, Birmingham and Sheffield.

Critics claim, however, that Eurostar will face stiff competition from low-cost airlines operating from regional airports. There are also fears that the closure of the Waterloo terminal would drive large numbers of Eurostar passengers in the south and west of London to switch to Heathrow.

From 2009, high-speed commuter trains will start using the new line, cutting the journey time from Ashford in Kent to central London to just 29 minutes. LCR claims that the line will create £10.5bn in re-generation benefits, which have not been taken into account in the NAO's assessment.