Plan for high-speed trains is axed

No fast TGV-style service for Britain, as Darling kills off prospect of brand new line from London to the North
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The prospect of Britain getting high-speed TGV-style trains like France and Germany will be killed off this week by the Secretary of State for Transport, Alistair Darling.

Mr Darling will tell a conference of industry leaders in a keynote speech that Britain is simply not big enough to have a high-speed line as well as the existing rail and motorway links, and instead will suggest improvements to existing services as part of a 30-year plan for the railways. In its manifesto for the last election, Labour had committed to consider building a brand new high-speed line between London and the North using a new generation of trains that would slash journey times and reduce the demand for polluting domestic air travel.

Instead, Mr Darling will say, main lines such as the East Coast and Great Western will be improved to take 200kmph trains so that all major towns in England will be reachable for a business meeting from London without the need for an overnight stay. High-speed trains in France and Germany already run at 300kmph, whereas the highest speeds in the UK are no faster than the steam age. Mr Darling will also suggest that double-decker trains may be introduced on overcrowded lines.

Ironically, the death knell for the TGV idea comes from the former BA chief Rod Eddington, who has been brought in by Mr Darling to advise on Britain's transport infrastructure. Mr Eddington's report is set to pour cold water on the idea as unworkable, pointing to problems such as cost and the difficulties of finding a route, particularly in the crowded South-east and to the centre of London.

The scrapping of a TGV-style vision will be a U-turn for Mr Darling who privately has been supportive of the idea. But the Treasury has made it clear that the prospect of spending £20bn or more on a major infrastructure scheme is a non-starter, even though the rail industry is convinced much of the scheme could be funded privately. Industry insiders are also sceptical of the idea for double-decker trains, as they would require expensive adaptations to bridges and tunnels. Because Britain was the first to build railways in the early 19th century, its loading gauge is smaller than on the Continent and in North America.

Mr Darling will disguise the U-turn by stressing that the Government is committed to a 30-year strategy of improving the railways. However, this will include no new major projects and, instead, will concentrate on small-scale enhancements to the existing network and improving line speeds by modernising the track and signalling.

Rail industry sources argue that the 40 per cent growth in railway usage over the past decade, which shows no sign of slowing down, means that the existing network simply cannot cope and that the high-speed line is necessary just to provide extra capacity. Adrian Lyons, director general of the Railway Forum, said: "Just tarting up the network is not enough. It means there will be greater demand for domestic air travel and a greater need for new runways and airports, which are far more environmentally damaging than railways." Labour's plans for road pricing would also increase demand for rail travel.

The scrapping of the scheme will be pounced on by the Opposition, which has been hounding Labour over a series of schemes that have been scrapped or delayed. These include tram projects in Leeds, Liverpool and Portsmouth, and Thameslink 2000, currently the only mainline link through central London, which is supposed to relieve congestion on the network's most crowded commuter line.

Chris Grayling, the Tory transport spokesman, said: "The trouble is that the Government keeps on making pronouncements and not following them through. They have broken promise after promise. They launched the idea of a high-speed line in a blaze of publicity and are now quietly dropping it. Where is the vision?"