Branson role in Channel link

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Transport Correspondent

The long-awaited announcement of the winning consortium to build the pounds 3bn Channel tunnel link will be made today.

London & Continental, which includes Richard Branson's Virgin group and the National Express bus company, will be given the contract for the 68- mile high-speed line from St Pancras to the mouth of the tunnel at Folkestone.

It will also be given the potentially lucrative British part of Eurostar, which runs the Channel tunnel trains, to help it fund the link. The consortium is also expected to receive pounds 1.5bn in subsidies, unlike the troubled Channel tunnel, which got no government backing.

It is believed it was the existing expertise of London & Continental which swung the contract in its favour, helping it beat off the civil- engineering-led consortium of Eurorail, which until recently was headed by the Tory peer and former transport secretary Lord Parkinson.

London & Continental also asked for about pounds 100m less subsidy than Eurorail but the bids were so different in character that this was not the determining factor.

It will also be expected to build the St Pancras station for the Thameslink cross-London trains which was given the go-ahead earlier this week.

The pounds 3bn link, delayed for nearly a decade by disputes over the route and by the consultation process, is currently the subject of a parliamentary bill which is about halfway through the process and is expected to become law in a year's time.

The link, which will also take commuter trains from Kent as well as high- speed trains from the Continent, is expected to be completed in 2003.