Keep leaves on the line, residents say

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The Independent Online
LIZ SEARL

The seasonal excuse of "leaves on the line" is causing trouble for Railtrack once again - but this time because its customers want the trees causing the problem to stay.

Railtrack has refused to back down from a decision to fell more than 700 established trees along its Guildford to Reading route in order to "maintain the safety of the railway line".

Yesterday, campaigners were celebrating a last-minute temporary reprieve offered by Railtrack while the issue was discussed. But later in the day came the decision that felling would soon begin along three-quarters of a mile of track near Farnborough, Hampshire.

"We personally understand the problem that the residents have with this decision," said Jenny Rawlinson from Railtrack South West. "But there really isn't an alternative. We have a legal requirement to make sure the railway line is safe."

Railtrack claims that leaves on the line turn that section of track into black ice in winter and says the trees surrounding it are spindly and unsafe. It plans to clear an eight-metre stretch from each side of the track. But residents who were given only a matter of days to complain say the company tried to hide the full extent of its plans.

In an open letter to local householders Railtrack advised it would "clear only selected areas ... and remove only what is necessary from them".

Many gardens which back on to the line are a haven for squirrels, foxes, deer, and many species of bird, residents say. "It is not just a case of us looking straight across the track on to the new road bypass," said Sally Usher, one of the campaigners. "I will lose all the birds and other wildlife that I love dearly."

Residents are planning a campaign and the local council will look into issuing a protection order on the trees. "There will be total fury in the area when people find out what they have decided," said John Debenham, a councillor on the planning committee. "We even understand that Railtrack proposes to do this country-wide. There are thousands of miles of track like this which we call green corridors. If all of it is going to be vandalised by Railtrack then something should be done about it on a national scale."

The council had hoped to find an alternative method of clearing the leaves or to persuade Railtrack to continue to use its "leafbuster" engine. "There can only be a maximum of four trains an hour on this piece of track," Mr Debenham said.

Railtrack officials are adam-ant their decision cannot be reversed. "People are saying we don't care and that's just not true," said Ms Rawlinson. "There is, unfortunately, no alternative for us here."

tRail fares have been more than doubled on a busy line in an effort to deter commuters from travelling on overcrowded trains. David Horne, pricing manager at the South Wales and West Railway company, revealed that the price changes on the service between Teignmouth and Torre, in Devon, were made because of an "extreme demand situation" and "limited rolling stock resources". He said season ticket prices had been "restruc- tured" to "suppress demand".

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