High-speed commuter rail scheme delayed by a year

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The Independent Online

A £300m project to establish Britain's first super-fast commuter rail service will be delayed by at least a year amid concern that it could be a hugely expensive "white elephant", The Independent understands.

A £300m project to establish Britain's first super-fast commuter rail service will be delayed by at least a year amid concern that it could be a hugely expensive "white elephant", The Independent understands.

The specialised 186mph trains are due to start running from stations in Kent to London along the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (CTRL), but ministers are still arguing over which rolling stock to order.

Industry sources assert that there is "not a cat in hell's chance" of the new trains being ready on time - a prediction privately acknowledged by Whitehall officials.

The Department for Transport has registered its dismay about the price of the new rolling stock, which has to be specially built to cope with the different electrification systems on the domestic and CTRL tracks. It is known that the cost of the 18 "sets" - locomotive and carriages - could be £200m. However, it is possible that more sets will be required, taking the final price tag, together with other costs, to £300m.

Some government officials are also worried that the new services may fail to attract sufficient commuters.

While a new station at Ebbsfleet, Gravesend, is expected to be popular with passengers because of its proximity to the A2 and the M25, there is a question-mark over other stations further away from the capital.

The new trains would operate on three main routes. One of the new services is scheduled to start at Folkestone and another at Ramsgate. They will both then join the CTRL at Ashford International. From there they go via Ebbsfleet under the Thames to Stratford and on into London. Another is supposed to begin at Sittingbourne, run through the Medway towns then on to the CTRL at Ebbsfleet. They will all terminate at St Pancras.

It is thought that the only way of guaranteeing full trains would be by keeping the cost of tickets down. Ministers still hope that a premium rate can be charged for the super-fast services, possibly double the rate paid on comparable routes on the far slower suburban network.

Transport for London, which is responsible for networks in the capital, points out that part of the cost for the new super-fast services will be met by axing rush-hour trains using the existing lines.

One source close to the rolling stock companies that will buy the trains and lease them to the train operator said that while the project was a "financial basket case", the Government seemed politically committed to it.

On the existing domestic railway the fastest time between Gravesend and Charing Cross is 52 minutes. The new services would take about 15 minutes to get from Ebbsfleet to a newly enlarged St Pancras.

In a recent letter to the Prime Minister, Sir Sandy Bruce-Lockhart, leader of Kent County Council, argued that the development of the new links was essential to the Government's plans for the development of the so-called Thames Gateway, which runs through north Kent to the coast.

Sir Sandy called on Tony Blair, who has taken over the chairmanship of the cabinet sub-committee dealing with the development area, to "unlock the inertia" surrounding the high speed links.

The Strategic Rail Authority (SRA), which took over responsibility from Connex for the ailing rail services in Kent, hopes to "re-privatise" the franchise next year. The new incumbent will be responsible for running the fast commuter services as well as existing routes.

A spokesman for the SRA said that officials were working with the Department for Transport to get services started "as soon as possible".

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