Channel's missing link settled at last

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After nearly a year's deliberations consisting of 320 hours of public sessions, the Commons committee examining the Channel Tunnel Rail Link Bill has decided on a final route for the new 68-mile high-speed railway - but has ducked the thorny issue of compensation.

In outlining its final decisions yesterday, the chairman of the committee, Sir Antony Durant MP announced that the committee had resolved the final sticking points, notably the approach into St Pancras station in north London.

The link between St Pancras and the mouth of the Channel Tunnel near Folkestone is now not expected to be completed until 2003 because of delays to Parliamentary procedure caused by the high number of objectors to the project.

Moreover, the committee has passed over the issue of compensation which threatens the project whose estimated cost has already overtaken the pounds 3bn mark; in a letter leaked last summer, Sir George Young, the Secretary of State for Transport, warned that excessively generous compensation would jeopardise the viability of the rail link. Instead of deciding on how much those affected - mainly owners of property which has lost value because of the line - should be paid, the committee has recommended that the Government create a working committee to reconsider the issue. The current state of the law, said the committee, "appears totally inadequate in situations in which a reduction in the price of a property is attributable to a project such as the link even though the property will not actually be physically affected."

This will be deeply unwelcome to transport ministers who have already faced a successful complaint to the Parliamentary Ombudsman by a group of Kent residents affected by an earlier version of the rail link route.

The alignment of the route can now be moved only slightly - within about 80 metres - by the consortium appointed to build it. An announcement on whether London & Continental, which includes Richard Branson's Virgin group, or Eurorail, which includes the troubled Trafalgar House conglomerate, has won the right to build the link is expected within the next two weeks.

The successful promoter will be expected to complete the project which will be necessary to meet anticipated demand from rail traffic using the Channel Tunnel.