173 YEARS and one day after the opening of the world’s first inter-city railway between Liverpool and Manchester, Britain finally entered the age of high speed railways. The opening of Section 1 of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link on September 16 came 20 years after France’s first TGV line was completed between Paris and Lyon and no less than 39 years after Japan’s Tokaido Shinkansen demonstrated that an exciting future lay ahead for high speed passenger trains.

As with other high speed lines, the £5·2bn CTRL is being built partly to release capacity on routes congested with other services, in this case commuter trains serving the county of Kent. Representing the best of modern conventional railway technology for passenger trains, the 300 km/h line was largely built using techniques perfected in France. It is not pushing the frontiers of engineering, but it will demonstrate the capabilities of high speed rail.

British Rail launched its first 200 km/h inter-city services in 1976, at a time when railways were fighting back against the onslaught of vigorous competition from the motorways and airlines. Since the mid-1980s, however, political and financial barriers have militated against progress with higher speeds in the UK.

Many observers hope that CTRL will trigger a ’TGV effect’ similar to that seen in France during the 1980s, when many cities were lobbying for a link to that country’s emerging high speed network. The Strategic Rail Authority expects to start consultation this month on long-term plans to develop a UK high speed network after the completion in 2007 of CTRL Section 2, and SRA Chairman Richard Bowker suggested that there was obvious potential for a trunk line heading north from London.

But SRA is grappling with an explosion of costs on the conventional rail network, and there was a clear signal of the government’s ambivalence to rail investment on September 16. Prime Minister Tony Blair limited his attendance to a short speech at Waterloo (inset), leaving Transport Secretary Alistair Darling to ride the inaugural train and perform the opening ceremony at Sandling in Kent (top).

High speed and the technical requirements for services at 350 km/h or more will be among topics for discussion at the World Congress on Railway Research in Edinburgh (p631). It should come as no surprise that the theme is ’From Birth to Renaissance’, a reflection on the policies that currently drive the UK rail sector, where thinking is about making the best use of existing railways rather than contemplating pipe dreams of the long-term technical future.

WCRR delegates from other countries will doubtless be fascinated to see the realities of rail services in Britain, which at the time of writing included buses replacing inter-city trains between Newcastle and Edinburgh on September 28 as the visitors travel north to Scotland. They will find that railway policy here does not centre on construction of the north-south high speed line that really will be needed one day, but on struggling to make the present complex and unmanageable structure actually work. The immediate future requires a strategy to tackle the problem of rampant costs and the related issue of safety hysteria (below left).

Lest there be any doubt over the unproductive nature of the structure, consider this. One of our contemporary journals recently carried an advertisement for the post of Chairman of something called the Delay Attribution Board. This is an independent body with 12 members that exists solely to determine the parameters for apportioning blame for late running between Network Rail, its maintenance contractors and the different train operating companies. We trust that visitors to Edinburgh will bring with them news that it does not have to be like this.