Go-ahead for pounds 220m rail freight link to Chunnel

MINISTERS are set to approve a pounds 150m cash boost for a rail freight expressway, linking Scotland to the Channel Tunnel which could take 400,000 lorries off the roads.

Railtrack, the promoter of the scheme, met transport officials last Friday to discuss funding for the project and is understood to have been given the green light.

The pounds 220m project will allow enlarged "Piggyback" freight wagons to use the west coast main line, leading to a substantial reduction in the amount of freight moved by road.

Under the scheme, freight containers are uncoupled from their cabs and put on to specially-designed rail bogies.

The expressway will come into operation over the next five years and will require Railtrack, owner of the track, signalling and stations of the former British Rail, to widen tunnels and raise bridges on the lines used.

The project is part of an ambitious freight rail network planned by Railtrack. The aim is to triple the amount of freight traffic carried by rail over the next 10 years.

A key consideration will be expanding the busy rail network in the North- east in order to draw freight from the region's roads. Railtrack executives have proposed a pounds 100m scheme which could see lorry loads taken from Ireland to the Continent.

At present containers are unloaded on ports such as Liverpool and cross the country by road to be picked up at Hull.

The route used by lorry drivers is the M62. The motorway is so heavily used that it is congested for most of the day. More than 110,000 vehicles use the M62 daily, of which at least 27,000 are heavy goods vehicles.

Other parts of the scheme include upgrading rail routes to busy ports like Southampton. The most ambitious plans are reserved for the link joining the Channel Tunnel to Scotland.

Railtrack argues that the scheme is not commercially viable without government support. At present the annual rail freight grants budget runs to just pounds 40m. Railtrack has offered to extract pounds 10m a year from that pot for 10 years in order to recoup their spending.

Officials, however, want operators such as English Welsh Scottish (EWS) to guarantee that they will buy rolling stock to make use of the new lines. EWS was formed when 90 per cent of BR's freight business was sold to the American giant Wisconsin Central Transportation two years ago.

Railtrack says that the industry is keen to exploit the new opportunity presented by the "Piggyback" scheme. Ministers want to reverse the historic decline of rail freight.

The share of goods carried by rail in Britain has withered steadily from 40 per cent in the 1950s to 6 per cent last year.