Railway sell-off angers transport campaigners

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The Independent Online

Plans for a multi-million pound auction of more than 1,000 pieces of former British Rail land has sparked outrage among transport groups.

Plans for a multi-million pound auction of more than 1,000 pieces of former British Rail land has sparked outrage among transport groups.

The British Railways Board has issued a private list of the first tranche of 600 items it wants to sell from a portfolio of 1,400 sites across the country.

The BRB believes the portfolio is worth £174m, but the final receipts could be much higher at auction. Campaigners are angry only 200 of the 1,400 properties have been set aside for possible transport use and claim many of the others make up crucial parts of local transport plans. The list includes station car parks, goods yards, former stations and signal boxes, playing fields, viaducts, disused railway lines axed by Dr Beeching, and even a row of shops.

They plan to write to John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister with responsibility for railways, saying selling off sites such as station car parks will undermine plans to integrate trains with other modes of transport.

Stephen Joseph, director of pressure group Transport 2000, described the sell-off as "daft". He said: "The Government wants to promote integrated transport with more people driving and cycling to train stations.

"But by the time councils start work on this they will find all of the land has been flogged off for office blocks."

The Government called a halt to sales last year pending a review after pressure groups warned that important sites which could be converted back to transport use were being lost.

David Begg, the recently-appointed head of the Government's Commission on Integrated Transport, was briefed about the plan at a conference on Friday. The sale will put him in a difficult position because he will be reluctant to criticise ministers.

David Redgewell, of Transport 2000 in the south-west, said plans to sell off land at Wapping Wharf in Bristol, Saltford station near Bath, and Henbury station, Gloucestershire, conflicted with local plans to build new public transport schemes.

"This is the great railway land sell-off. Who would have thought that a Labour government would be selling off all of the railway's assets. So much for our Government wanting to protect the railway infrastructure."

The list of 600 sites has been sent to councils, transport operators and pressure groups. They now have 60 days to come up plans to bring the other sites back into use before the list is released to the open market.A series of auctions will be held around the country in the spring, at which property developers will be able to bid for the land.

A spokesman for the British Railways Board, which is charged with disposing of unwanted land, said: "We are charged with getting best value for the properties because they are government properties."

But he said transport groups could appeal to Mr Prescott, if they were outbid on the grounds that there were wider policy reasons why the land should be retained for transport uses.

The full list of 1,400 sites is highly eclectic. It includes a row of shops on the Finchley Road in north London, and the former BR Staff Association building at Carnforth in Lancashire, the station immortalised by the Second World War film drama Brief Encounter.