Britain trumpeted Monday the launch of its first full high-speed domestic rail service, while unveiling plans for a network of the trains across the country in years to come.



Prime Minister Gordon Brown was on hand at Saint Pancras station in London for the first services by the Japanese-built Javelin trains, slashing journey times between the capital and the county of Kent to the southeast.

"This is a great day for Saint Pancras and for... rail services in this area and for the UK. This is also a momentous day in the long and glorious history of British railways," he said.

The Hitachi class 395 trains will reach speeds of up to 140 miles (220 kilometres) per hour, using sections of the London-to-Folkestone high-speed rail link built for Eurostar trains through the Channel Tunnel.

The new 508-passenger trains, introduced by the Southeastern rail company, will cut the journey time from coastal Dover to London by 47 minutes to 69 minutes, while Ashford to London comes down from well over an hour to 37 minutes.

By the time of the 2012 London Olympics, they will be able to transport spectators from Saint Pancras to the main Games site in Stratford, east London, in just seven minutes.

Britain, which has lagged behind its European neighbours in introducing high-speed rail travel, plans to invest 20 billion pounds (32 million dollars, 22 million euros) in railway infrastructure in the next few years.

The government has set up a company to investigate the feasibility of a north-south high-speed rail line, which could link London with other chief cities like Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow. Its findings are expected by the end of this month.

Brown acknowledged that the global economic downturn made it tougher to find funding for such projects.

"I know some people who think this is not the time to be investing in infrastructure, but I believe it is essential to do so," he said.