Isn’t it time our railline got the bullet?

THE possibility of East Coast rail passengers stepping on to Japanese-style bullet trains within five years moved closer yesterday.

THE possibility of East Coast rail passengers stepping on to Japanese-style bullet trains within five years moved closer yesterday.

The Government announced the builder of the famous bullet train is among firms to have been shortlisted to construct a new fleet of intercity trains that will run on the East Coast Main Line from 2012 before a national rollout.

Hitachi is also building similarly sleek “Javelin” trains for new high-speed services serving Kent and says its long distance units could look similar and share some technology from them.

Campaign group Transport 2000 has suggested the new intercity trains could be built to run at 140mph as parts of the East Coast route could in future support an increase from the current top 125mph speed, but stressed reliability is vital.

The Department for Transport (DfT) said the flagship trains would be longer and lighter, carrying significantly more passengers while being more environmentally friendly.

It also wants consistent reliability, safety and service demands met and has promised cash to accommodate the trains on the rail network.

The other shortlisted bidders – which include international train builders – are the Alstom-Barclays Rail Group and Express Rail Alliance, a consortium made up of Bombardier Transportation, Siemens, Angel Trains and Babcock & Brown.

Stephen Joseph, who heads campaign group Transport 2000, said: “In terms of attracting people to use trains, the outside is important for non-users, but anyone can do that. But once you are on the trains, making the inside of trains work properly for people is important.” He said priorities were providing comfort and sufficient luggage space, but stressed frequency and reliability was more important for passengers than small increases in speed.

But Liberal Democrat Euro-MP Fiona Hall said: “People will only switch from air and road to rail if journey times are cut.”

Hitachi said it was delighted to be shortlisted for the intercity express programme, which was the UK’s most significant investment in trains for more than 30 years, and promised to build its existing projects to develop a winning design.

Rail Minister Tom Harris said: “We are developing a flexible train that can be deployed on different lines, in different lengths, and with different sources of power – so this train can operate wherever we need it to in the future.”

The DfT said the specification has been developed in close co-operation with the rail industry and passengers, with shortlisted firms submitting proposals next summer before the contract is awarded later in 2008 or early in 2009. A pre-series batch of trains will run on the East Coast route from 2012 as agreed under the new franchise won by National Express, which has also promised faster services.

Production of the entire fleet will then begin with trains entering full service from 2015, starting on the East Coast and Great Western Main Lines.

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Tories consider road charges for foreign lorries

REGIONAL road upgrades could be paid for by charging foreign hauliers to use UK routes under plans to be considered by the Tories.

A party policy review group is tomorrow expected to say £10bn would be raised through a lorry-charging scheme for improvements across the country, with councils able to bid for cash to widen roads as well as improve junctions and management of routes within a “reasonable” timeframe.

The economic competitiveness policy group, led by ex-cabinet minister John Redwood, may call for diesel or truck excise duty to be cut so overall tax levels do not rise for British lorry drivers but stress the move does not break any European Union competition rules.

British companies could then compete more effectively with European rivals who enjoy lower duties, according to the expected review.

The policy group could also call for an incoming Tory Government to tackle as quickly as possible “obvious” shortfalls over congestion, safety and capacity that have left motorways and main trunk routes groaning under the strain of rising traffic. Any future action could centre on improving management of the existing network and increasing capacity on key motorways and trunk roads – a prospect that comes amid growing demands to upgrade the A1 Western Bypass and fully dual the A1 north of Newcastle to boost economic growth and safety.

Ross Smith, from the North East Chamber of Commerce, said: “On the face of it, it seems a good idea to ensure that UK hauliers have got a level playing field and that there is a mechanism for those who use our roads to contribute to their upkeep.” He added there would be questions about the scheme’s operation, the potential amount of cash raised and where that would be spent – pointing to whether a key North-South route like the A1 should be a top priority.

Mr Smith warned other European countries could impose similar charges that could affect trade, and stressed encouraging more freight to use Teesport would be more environmentally-friendly.

Newcastle City Council leader John Shipley said there was not a level playing field for UK hauliers, with many having to pay tolls in Europe while paying higher duties in this country.

“What would be justified is an equalisation between countries within the European Union as to what each lorry should have to pay in tax,” he added.

Fellow Liberal Democrat city councillor Greg Stone said the principle of increasing tax on heavy goods vehicles needed to be looked at but stressed the emphasis must be on moving freight onto the rail network.

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