Prescott backs new railway in Snowdonia

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PLANS TO open a tourist railway through the heart of Snowdonia National Park, which critics say would devastate some of Britain's most beautiful and unspoilt landscape, were given government approval yesterday.

John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, overruled a government planning inspector's recommendation to block the reconstruction of the 25-mile Welsh Highland Railway, which runs from Porthmadog to Dinas near Caernarvon.

Mr Prescott said he was "minded" to approve the scheme but said the final decision would be delayed until Ffestiniog Mountain Railwayshowed that there would be no danger to passengers from rock falls. However, it is likelythe new Welsh Assembly, to be voted in on 6 May, will make the final decision.

Mr Prescott said he had approved the scheme in principle after giving much thought to the "complex issues. I'm very aware of the sensitivity of the Snowdonia National Park. That is why I have asked the company to undertake a detailed survey of the rock faces in the vicinity of the Aberglaslyn tunnels." He said the company must establish it can carry out works to prevent rock falls without harming the environment. "It is essential that we know the full implications of the reconstruction of the railway at Aberglaslyn before a final decision is made," Mr Prescott said.

He said the railway would attract 125,000 visitors a year, bringing in pounds 4.2m and leading to "significant job creation".

The plan fitted with the Government's transport policy, as it would encourage more people to leave their cars outside the park, he said.

Conservation groups condemned the decision, saying the railway would attract unwanted tourist development that would bring pollution, noise and disruption to an area of outstanding natural beauty.

During a seven-week public inquiry in late 1997, the plan was fiercely opposed by the Snowdonia National Park, the Ramblers' Association, National Farmers' Union (NFU) and the National Trust.

The planning inspector concluded there were insufficient benefits to the park and its economy to outweigh the adverse effects of the scheme.

Richard Williams, chairman of Gwarchod, the group formed to oppose the railway, said the venture would tear in half his 100-hectare farm. "The countryside will lose out because it will be scarred by the railway and by all the necessary signage, the fencing and the works to accommodate it," he said.

Mr Williams accused Labour of playing politics by announcing investment in north Wales ahead of the Welsh elections.

The objectors have also drawn the support of residents, such as Ray Dimock, from the village of Rhyd-ddu, who joined the Gwarchod committee.

The NFU called on Mr Prescott to reverse his decision. "He has caused a great deal of uncertainty in the minds of local people and farmers who are strongly opposed to the project," said a spokesman.

Rory Francis, the director of the Snowdonia Society, said he was optimistic the Welsh Assembly would reverse Mr Prescott's decision. "The most important issues are the loss of footpaths, pollution, visual intrusion and interference with agriculture," Mr Francis said.

Snowdonia National Park said it had been vindicated by the inspector's recommendation but was disappointed with Mr Prescott's ruling. "It's not lost yet," a spokesman said.

Ffestiniog Mountain Railway said it wanted to deliver the results of a "thorough and extensive" study to Mr Prescott as soon as possible.

Mike Hart, its chairman, said: "We are pleased he has recognised the economic benefits and the potential integrated transport opportunities the railway will bring to the region. This is an important day for the railway."

The narrow-gauge line, which closed in 1937, passes through some of the most isolated parts of the national park. The pounds 9m project - which includes a pounds 4.3m grant from the Millennium Commission - will extend the popular 14-mile line from Porthmadog to Blaenau Ffestiniog to create Britain's longest volunteer-run tourist railway.

The Ramblers' Association said a popular walking route would be lost if the decision was confirmed. "The inspector concluded against it and it seems a lottery grant may be driving it on," said a spokeswoman.

The National Trust said that the area was one of the "most picturesque" places in the national park and had been under its protection since 1935.

"The decision to undertake a detailed survey of the rock faces is welcomed. As the railway would run through National Trust land in the Aberglaslyn Pass it would expect to be involved in the survey and comment on any proposed remedial works," a spokesman said.