Darling of the commuters

Commuters travelling between London and Kent are to get their own ‘bullet’ trains capable of travelling at speeds of up to 140mph.

Transport secretary Alistair Darling has announced that Hitachi, which makes Japanese Shinkansen, will build around 30 of the high-speed trains.

They are claimed to be able to operate on both the new channel tunnel rail link track and standard domestic track, and will cut40 minutes off average journey times from Ashford into central London.

The six-carriage trains are due to be in service in 2009, and will also be able to transport people from St Pancras station to the Olympic park at Stratford in east London in eight minutes, should London’s bid to host the 2012 games prove successful.

Professor Rod Smith, head of mechanical engineering at Imperial College, said the move – the first time the UK has purchased Japanese-built trains – could prove a catalyst for change on the UK’s railways.

‘I hope Hitachi will bring some style and reliability that we have not previously had. It’s interesting to see the technology coming this way. The trains will be operating on a dedicated high-speed track, and it will demonstrate what is possible,’ he said.

‘I’m more convinced than ever that our transport problems are so chronic that eventually, but perhaps too late, we will get round to building a high-speed railway system,’ said Smith.

It has also emerged that for the last 18 months Darling has been sitting on a report by a team of consultants including Atkins and Ernst & Young, which claims the rail network will suffer severe overcrowding unless a dedicated high-speed line is built between London and Scotland, and work must begin immediately.

He is believed to be concerned about the cost of such a line, but is expected to announce another study into the feasibility in the next few weeks.