Leading article: Speeding into the future?

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The Independent Online

Men and maids of Kent should be happy, particularly those who work in London. From today 29 Japanese-built Hitachi Javelin trains, with top speeds of 140mph, will hurtle between Folkestone and the capital. This will cut the one-hour journey time between Ashford and London almost in half, and the journey time from Dover to St Pancras to 69 minutes.

The Transport Secretary, Lord Adonis, and Dame Kelly Holmes, who grew up in Kent, will launch the new service by travelling between St Pancras and Rochester, after which one of the trains will be named in honour of the double gold medal-winning Olympic athlete.

Yet such fanfare serves to emphasise just how far Britain languishes behind the rest of Europe when it comes to high-speed rail travel. The citizens of France and Germany, having enjoyed such services for years, have learnt to take them for granted. Then there is the speed of travel when it comes to government investment. This new Kentish service is piggybacking on the line built to make the Channel Tunnel service more rapid. By all accounts, Lord Adonis has been fighting hard in Cabinet for more investment in high-speed rail, but the fact is that plans for routes to the northern metropolises and Scotland are still very much at the drawing board stage.

Another issue is price. The Kentish high-speed service will cost passengers around 20 per cent more. In itself, that is not unreasonable given that it is a much quicker service. The underlying problem is the already elevated price of train travel across Britain on top of which these increases will be imposed. The prices of unregulated fares are far outstripping inflation, undermining efforts to encourage the public out of the cars and on to the rail network.

No one seriously disputes the need for cuts in public spending in the years ahead. But investment in rail is one of those areas of expenditure in which it makes no sense to seek economies. The railways are part of the infrastructure we need if we are to have low-carbon economic growth. And ministers need to do more to make rail competitive with planes and cars in terms of price. It is not just Kent that needs affordable high-speed rail, but Britain as a whole.