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Fast and surreal: Ashford to London on the high speed train

By Robert Barman
Bullet train at Ashford
Bullet train at Ashford

It was fast, very fast.

From leaving Ashford to rolling to a halt at London St Pancras, the train was in motion for exactly 29 minutes and 26 seconds.

As train driver Mick Harding said: "You don't notice how fast you are going until you see the M20 and M2 and the traffic in the fast lane is going past at the rate of knots. Then you realise you are going at an incredible speed."

The high speed train was making its first run from Ashford to London for the press, and it left at 8.48am on the nose. The acceleration on to the high speed line was something to behold and it really took off. Before long we were whipping past drivers on the M20.

Arriving in St Pancras, north London, was surreal, as a normal train would only just be leaving Tonbridge at that point.

It was a big day for Southeastern, which is banking on the services to beat the recession and boost towns around the line. The press run did not stop at Ebbsfleet so it was unusually quick - an average speed of about 120mph.

The actual time scheduled time from Ashford to London will still be a far from snail-like 37 minutes.

Sarah Boundy, from Southeastern, said: "What this does is it opens up Kent to the rest of the UK. Kent can be a little isolated but from December people will easily be able to travel to other parts of the UK by rail. It should also make Kent more attractive to business."

There have been voices of criticism, after the draft mainline timetable showed a lack of direct trains to Charing Cross from Folkestone and Dover.

Ms Boundy said: "There are changes but we have tried to keep the existing level of services. They will still be able to get to Charing Cross but with any change it will be better for some but not all.I think what we can always say is that it is unliely to change by December but we have taken on board people's views and timetables are not set in stone and we will continue to look at it."

So what is the journey like?

There is only one class on the HSTs, or bullet trains depending on what you prefer, and the seating is typically firm (or indeed supportive if you prefer) - it is all a long way from sinking into the cushions of an old British Rail coach.

The design is a gentle blue colour and very restful, hardly betraying the trains' Japanese origins.

You're not crammed in and there is plenty of space - as there should be for the premium prices they charge.

Much of the high speed line from the town was built behind bunds - earthen banks - to keep the sound down, so if it is views you are after, you have to wait until Rainham Marshes on the other side of the Thames.

That said, there is a nice moment where you cross the Medway so close to cars on the M2 you can wave as you leave them in the dust and it is nice to see traffic jammed ont he QE2 bridge at Dartford as you fly by at 140mph.

The trains are not quiet at high speed, with some wind noise, and there is a fair amount of sound in the tunnels. That said, they are quieter on the classic routes and people will only be spending a maximum of 37 minutes on the high speed line.

And yes, the woman with the nice voice still tells you where you are, although my favourite was the computerised voice telling you which coach you were sitting in: Marvin the Paranoid Android has obviously found some new employment.

Former Network Rail man and railway journalist Phil Marsh reckoned the service was a sign that everything was coming together on the railways. He said: "The journey was under half an hour in each direction, which is fantastic, and what this is is the train coming together with the track.

"That may sound silly but in the past the people building the trains didn't make sure they would work together - it cost £1bn to upgrade the power supplies when the other Kent trains were brought in. This is very could and should be applauded. It's a good news story on the railways."

First high speed passenger train hurtles through Kent

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