One hundred and seventy-six years ago, Britain invented the passenger railway. Twenty-five years ago tomorrow, the French reinvented it.
The inaugural Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) or high-speed train - like a terrestrial space rocket with a Gallic nose - left the Gare de Lyon in Paris on 22 September 1981. Since then, 1.2 billion passengers have been carried by TGVs within France, at speeds of up to 186mph, without a single, serious injury.
Within the next year, the TGV, mocked by some as a typically French, state-driven economic folly, over-hyped by others as the future of all inter-city transport in the 21st century, will come of age. New sections of high-speed line will open between central London and the Kent suburbs; between Paris and Metz; between Brussels and Amsterdam; and between Brussels and the German border.
The high-speed rail network for north-west Europe, which has been gradually taking shape in the past decade, will become a reality. London will be two hours 20 minutes from Paris by train. Amsterdam to Paris by rail will take three hours and five minutes. Paris to Cologne will be three hours, Paris to Frankfurt, four hours. There are already high-speed lines in Italy and Spain and lengthy new sections under construction in both countries.
By 2020, Europe's high-speed track mileage should triple. There are confirmed projects for lines within, and linking, France, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Denmark, Austria, Portugal and Sweden. High-speed trains from Amsterdam to Madrid - via Paris, Lyons and Barcelona - are "a certainty" within 15 years, says Guillaume Pepy, the chairman of Eurostar and chief executive officer of the French railways, the SNCF.
Changes in European Union law on transport competition will also mean that, 10 years from now, new train operators, even airlines, could begin to offer services on this network. The state-owned SNCF, a leading partner in the London-Paris-Brussels trains, is already planning for the day when Eurostar becomes a separate train-operating company in its own right, competing for rail passengers between London and Paris with, say, Air France or Virgin or perhaps, some new, cut-price niche operator.
In the meantime, says M. Pepy, railway companies and train operators will streamline the cross-border "alliances" (such as Eurostar) to lower their prices and improve services, connections and comfort. There are no immediate plans for daily through trains from London via the Channel Tunnel to cities such as Amsterdam or Cologne or Lyons. Swift rail journeys from Britain to the Netherlands and Germany will be available through changes at Lille or Brussels. The odd country out in this 21st-century railway revival is the country where the railway began.
After the second part of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link is completed from Folkestone to London St Pancras next year, Britain has no further plans to build high-speed railway lines.
The Government included the "study" of a high-speed line from London to the north of England and Scotland in its manifesto for the last election. In the spring, the Government indicated that all available money would be spent instead on motorways and upgrading the 19th century railway network. Hopes of a British TGV system - bringing Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds within one hour and 25 minutes of London by rail and Glasgow within three hours - have been shunted into a siding.
Is this a sensible choice in a country drowning in road traffic and facing awkward questions about the environmental impact of the explosion in air travel?
Given the exorbitant cost of the Channel Link (seven times higher per mile than any other high-speed line in Europe) and the extraordinary cost of rebuilding the 19th-century west coast main line to north-west England and Scotland, anyone would tremble at the likely cost of a new high-speed line through the spine of England.
But Britain may ask whether it is getting value for money by standing aside from Europe's railway revolution. The French eastern high-speed line from Paris, opening to Metz next June (eventually continuing to Strasbourg and Germany) will cost €3.5bn (£2.35bn) for 300km. It is forecast that Britain's west coast upgrade will cost at least £7.6bn (or €11.2bn) for 1,000km, including loops and branches to Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool.
So the cost per route kilometre is about the same. The French are getting a brand-new railway for €11.6m per kilometre. We are getting an upgraded old railway for €11.2m per kilometre.
Britain's west coast main line will have been promoted from a 100mph railway to a 125mph railway, compared to the 140mph originally promised.
The new French line, or TGV-Est, will have a line speed of 200mph, somewhat higher than France's three, existing highspeed lines to south, to the north and to the west. The French railways began tests this week on the possibility of bringing all their high-speed lines up to 360kph (225mph).
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