Gale`s View (June 24th 2009).
"Off like a shot" screams the tabloid headline. "140 mph train that halves journey times". This is what Mr. Gerald Ratner might have described as, if you will pardon the expression, "crap"!
The train in question is the Japanese-built Class 395 "British Bullet" that will run on the domestic CTRL line between, eventually, East Kent and London St. Pancras and the occasion was a PR run between St. Pancras and Ashford. Non stop.
(It was, of course, back in 2002, in an announcement timed to win General Election brownie points that a local Labour Member of Parliament announced that a company called Netrail had ordered new trains that would be whizzing from East Kent to London by 2007. Sadly, the company turned out to be without substance and those trains did not materialise!)
Now, I never cease to tire of telling anyone that is still prepared to listen that I have personally travelled, by train, from London Victoria to Ramsgate in one hour flat. The trip was made on existing track using existing signalling and in old "slam-door" rolling stock.
In the days when our trains were still run by British Rail, before we made a sizeable hash of returning the railways to their former pre-nationalised privatised glory, BR ran an engineering train to find out how much punishment the permanent way and the trains could take. Happily for those of us that survived the trip, the answer turned out to be quite a lot!
The trick, of course, was that in order to achieve this run they had two remove the two trains scheduled in front of ours and they had to go flat out and non-stop with all the crossings and barriers down and all of the sheep and cattle removed, well in advance. Non stop.
The reality is that the "Bullet" will shave a few minutes off the Ashford to St. Pancras journey time but it still remains the fact that, door to door, by the time you have paid the premium fare (if you are mug enough to succumb to this 21st Century highway robbery) and then paid some more to travel by London Underground from St. Pancras to where you really wanted to be, the true journey time will be much more expensive and will take as long or longer than the one that you can make today. And to achieve this many of the trains running between East Kent and the London Termini will either be removed from the timetable due to be introduced in December or they will be slower. This is called "progress"!
I mention all of this now because last Thursday I was one of only four Members of Parliament who attended a Network Rail presentation held to promote the "Route Utilisation Strategy Document". Network Rail's team are good people and they are decent people and to present this document with a straight face and to know that not a bean is due to be spent, in the near future, upon the railway equivalent of cart track that links Ramsgate, via Canterbury West, to Ashford, must have been quite difficult.
We are entering "Control Period 4" or, in newspeak "CP4", which is the Transport Czar`s 2009 Stalinist equivalent of a "Five Year Plan". During this period "we" (the taxpayer) will be spending "over £34bn across the network, delivering improvements in safety, performance, capacity and capability". Happily, a few shillings of these 34 billion quids will be spent improving some of our stations and upgrading the signalling between Thanet and Faversham. Unfortunately, in order to stagger the disruption or, to put it another way, to spread the paid and inconvenience out over a few more years, the rest of the modern signalling needed between Faversham and London, will not be completed until well after the Olympics. (At the moment that's the 2012 Olympics - but watch this space!) These, of course, are the signals designed to improve journey times on the Kent Coast line that were going to be operational by 2010.
Having met them, I think that Network Rail's South East team would like to do more to alleviate the cattle-truck misery that is experienced by the South East's commuters twice daily. "The Route Utilisation Strategy - Draft for Consultation" invites comments before 23rd July 2009. It is available electronically at www.networkrail.co.uk. We need to ram home the message that it is essential that, to complete the project and to make the CTRL link between East Kent and London work and to make Manston Airport viable and to improve the Kent Coast line we need the investment not in many years time but now.
If you are one of those who is paying through the nose or, as my Latin teacher used to say "per anum", for the privilege of travelling slowly and in discomfort to work every day then speak now or hold your peace.