Freight firms rail at sale of old BR sites

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The Independent Online

John Prescott's £180bn bonanza to overhaul Britain's creaking rail network could be undermined unless the Government halts the sale of 1,400 former British Rail sites.

John Prescott's £180bn bonanza to overhaul Britain's creaking rail network could be undermined unless the Government halts the sale of 1,400 former British Rail sites.

This is the claim of English Welsh & Scottish, the UK's largest freight company, which is concerned that valuable land for freight development could be lost.

The company's planning director, Graham Smith, said: "The sale seems to go against all the things the Government is talking about.

John Prescott says that he wants 75 per cent of freight by rail. But there is no point in having all the capacity in the world if there is nowhere to unload the freight."

Mr Smith is due to meet officials at the Government's Shadow Strategic Rail Authority (SSRA) tomorrow to raise the issue.

The Government insists the sites, which are estimated to be worth £120m, should be sold at market value. But EWS believes that because the land is worth more for, say, housing or commercial development, many ideal sites for freight terminals will be lost.

On Thursday Mr Prescott launched the biggest state transport investment plan for a century by pledging to spend £180bn over 10 years on rail improvements, new rail services and road improvements.

Mr Smith welcomed the spending pledge, saying it could have a "dramatic effect" on the rail network, but he urged the Government to ensure the land sale does not undermine it.

The disposal is being handled by the Rail Property, formerly the British Rail Property Board, which already has the sale of around 300 sites under way. But it has referred a further 600 sites to the SSRA in cases where the rail industry and local authorities have raised objections.

According to a recent statement by transport minister Keith Hill, the SSRA could potentially hold on to the land for up to 20 years.

Just last week the issue was raised in the House of Lords during a debate on the Transport Bill, which is at the committee stage.

Baroness Thomas of Walliswood, a Liberal Democrat, said: "If we want to expand the rail network ... it is important to ensure that nothing is disposed of which could be used at a later date."

Local authorities, represented at the Local Government Association, have also expressed concern over the land sale proposals.

Many councils want a moratorium on the disposals to prevent sites being lost that could be used for the development of small passenger stations at some future date.

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