Trains using section one are now as reliable as the celebrated Japanese Shinkansen, or Bullet Train, with delays due to the infrastructure running at an average of 5.5 seconds per train.
Union Railways executive director Bob Crease says the steady improvement in performance of the 74km of line from the Channel Tunnel to Fawkham Junction in north Kent since it opened in September 2003 is testament to the quality of its design and construction.
Bedding in is now complete, and the maintenance regime is up and running.
'Reliability is now about 90%, ' he says. 'We had two four-week periods recently when there were no infrastructure delays at all. There have been just a few blips along the way which is due to the fact that it's a brand new railway.' A major factor in improved reliability has been a piece of signalling software that can accurately predict exactly where trains will be at a certain point in time, allowing action to stop congestion and resulting delays.
'We have a computer screen showing the projected path of the trains which helps us to take decisions early enough to minimise the delays overall, ' says Crease.
Crease also praises the 'proactive' maintenance regime that picks up inconsistencies in track geometry at the earliest stages. 'We are able to pick up potential difculties before they become a problem, ' he says.
'Our track geometry measuring system spots a bump before it gets serious enough to slow the trains down.' He is also pleased with the performance of overhead electrication, using the same infrastructure as the French TGV network, which has enabled a CTRL train to break the UK rail speed record by travelling at 334.7km/h. Trains now regularly top 300km/h and average speed is 250 to 270km/h.
Where section one has many interfaces with the existing national rail system, as at Ashford, rigorous engineering and approval processes were used. 'We've developed innovative signalling solutions to make sure the applications on both sides of the interface work successfully and are immunised against each other, ' says Crease.
There are at least two cable routes for signalling instructions to pass between control room and line side equipment, providing redundancy that will ensure signalling reliability is maintained if there is a fault on one route. When section two opens next year, Crease predicts an equally excellent performance.
In the major tunnels on section two, maintenance will be made much easier by use of an automated ventilation control system. Jet fans at regular intervals along each tunnel will help to regulate the air pressure in different parts of the tunnel and move the air in the desired direction. This means that fumes from diesel-powered maintenance vehicles can be directed away from workers. In the event of a fire, the system will be used to contain the smoke.
Integration with national rail services has been a major part of the development of sections one and two, and domestic services into St Pancras International along the new track from east Kent towns such as Dover, Canterbury and Folkestone will have a much quicker journey time.
The domestic services will be delivered by a new fleet of Javelin trains, being built by Hitachi and set to be introduced in 2009. Four Javelin trains an hour will run via Ashford and four trains an hour from the Medway towns via Ebbseet, from where they will speed into St Pancras International in just 17 minutes.