UK: Why Stratford is the best bet FOR CHANNEL TUNNEL TERMINAL.

UK: Why Stratford is the best bet FOR CHANNEL TUNNEL TERMINAL. - Some creative thinking seems evident on that tunnel route, at long last, says Roger Eglin.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Some creative thinking seems evident on that tunnel route, at long last, says Roger Eglin.

Take a map of Britain and a pencil and assume for a moment that the Channel tunnel surfaces, not just inland from Folkestone, but further north, where should the pencil go to mark the tunnel's northern portal? Common-sense says it should emerge close to where most of its potential passengers want to start and finish their journey and at a point convenient for freight shippers.

The site will involve some compromise. The London area will provide most business traffic; the freight will come from the North and Midlands. The pencil falls to the east of London, close to Stratford, a point from which travellers can easily reach London and freight, and some passengers, can swing away north. Fortunately this is where Malcolm Rifkind, the transport secretary, decided the tunnel should effectively surface in the guise of its own dedicated rail link. But if British Rail had its way, the decision would have been an appalling one.

After carving its way through densely populated south-east London, the preferred route then dumped most of its passengers at Waterloo, right in the congested heart of the city. What would have happened to freight remains vague. As for passengers heading north, some tunnel trains would go to King's Cross. Yet BR's top management have for some years convinced themselves that this was the only way: whatever the rest of the country might think, or need in the way of transport links, this line was going to link London to Europe.

BR's management has never been able to forget the collapse of the Channel Tunnel project in the '70s after shocked ministers discovered both the cost of the high speed rail link and its environmental penalty.

So this time, they boxed clever, adopting a low profile over the rail link until work on the tunnel was so far advanced that the project had become unstoppable. But this overlooked the obvious warnings that BR's plan was never going to get out of the station.

The most obvious red signal was that the line enjoyed no public support and the determined opposition in south-east London showed no signs of abating. Another flashed when BR's private sector partners, Trafalgar House and BICC, decided it could not be built without a £2 billion government injection.

Undeterred BR tried patching over this problem by factoring in improved rail services for Kent commuters. This should have increased the return on the line, hopefully coaxing the necessary cash out of a sceptical Treasury.

Debate about the alternative route running through Stratford and east London into King's Cross was effectively stifled. Its main protagonist, Ove Arup, the consulting engineers, did not want to launch a public quarrel with BR.

By this summer the preferred route had been surveyed, £100 million had been spent buying up affected property and BR's management had convinced themselves that it was all over.

But though they tripped themselves up, they deserve some sympathy. BR was a victim of this country's narrow-minded approach to planning and to the political ideology of Cecil Parkinson, Rifkind's predecessor at transport. Most people would plan a rail link to the tunnel by asking, just as this article did at the start, which route would bring the greatest advantage to the country? But poor BR (unlike the French who are building their tunnel link) was confined to the narrowest of briefs by its political masters.

Freight was ruled out for a start. It is said that as Parkinson reckoned so little freight went by rail, BR should not factor in freight income. Yet if the emphasis is placed on freight to Europe (now about half the country's exports), tunnel rail freight could corner as much as a quarter or more of this market. But now with provision for freight required, good access to the north of London is an expensive luxury, particularly as many businessmen in the regions will still find flying to Europe competitive. BR had no choice but to aim its route at London, the obvious market.

Fortunately after Parkinson's departure, a broader view began to take shape as Michael Heseltine, the environment secretary, persuaded Rifkind that the country could get more for its money - the cost will be between £3.5 to £4 billion - by opting for the alternative Ove Arup route (one proposed by the Rail Europe consortium is also very similar).

Now that the debate has been freed it is apparent that the Stratford route looks a much better bet. It will help to shift the centre of gravity of London from the congested west to the undeveloped east, regenerating the deprived docklands and offering better access to the rest of the country. Purpose built lines catering for both passengers and freight, can branch off to the North, by-passing London.

How will the more expensive eastern route be financed? Few believe that the private sector alone can do it but a mix of public and private money might work. But finance apart, the decision to go for this route suggests the Government's thinking has become more creative. Let's hope so.

Roger Eglin is Managing Editor of The Sunday Times.

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