Tories in re-think over M25

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THE GOVERNMENT is close to a dramatic policy change which would kill a huge motorway building project in favour of the construction of new rail links.

Ministers are studying proposals which would end the Department of Transport's published scheme to increase the M25 motorway - which circles London - to a total of 14 lanes over one section.

The new Secretary of State for Transport, Brian Mawhinney, is examining a package which includes a new series of railway links in the south. The plans have been given added impetus by the report of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution into the growth of traffic, and its positive reception.

Two weeks ago the Royal Commission urged the Government to axe half its roads programme.

The Government is also aware of the bitter opposition to the M25 scheme from several Conservative backbench MPs, including Sir Geoffrey Pattie, vice-chairman of the Conservative Party and MP for Chertsey and Walton, and Sir Michael Grylls, MP for North West Surrey. After being forced to retreat last week over postal privatisation, ministers are especially mindful of the objections of backbench MPs.

Dr Mawhinney's decision revolves around two projects which had been linked: the planned widening of the M25 through the building of ``link roads'', and the proposal for a fifth terminal at Heathrow Airport, west of London.

The county councils in the area are opposed to both projects but are thought to be more hostile to the M25

widening than to Terminal 5.

Access to Heathrow's Terminal 5 had been planned to be through the M25's link roads. But the British Airports Authority will stress this week that Terminal 5 is not dependent on the link roads by publishing plans for new rail projects which will virtually kill the M25 proposals.

They include rail links from Heathrow Terminal 5 to:

- the West Country and Wales via Reading

- North London, the Midlands and the North via Willesden in north London.

- the South, possibly via Basingstoke.

BAA will announce its intention to commission a feasibility study into the new links.

Ministers, however, have not yet agreed to the BAA plans. They believe the priority is for a pounds 50m rail link which would connect Heathrow, Reading and London.

And they are also anxious to explore the possibility of a connection to Gatwick, via Victoria, and to Stansted in Essex.

However, the pattern of the likely settlement is beginning to emerge. This will involve the cancellation of the M25 link roads project and its replacement by a smaller-scale widening scheme.

The Government may also experiment with traffic reduction systems on particularly congested stretches.

These could include a new 50mph speed limit on parts of the M25 and the introduction of a special motorway lane for cars that have more than one passenger.

Terminal 5 would then be approved and some of the cash saved from the M25 link roads project would be channelled into improved rail provision.

Dr Mawhinney's allies argue that this package would be more popular with southern MPs and would allow him to present himself as a much ``greener'' Secretary of State for Transport than his predecessor, John MacGregor.

Meanwhile, protesters were threatening yesterday to step up their campaign against the Newbury by-pass after the European Commission warned the Department of Transport that the project could be in breach of three separate directives.

Britain has two months to respond to the Commission's statement which could lead to legal action from Brussels.

The protesters may seek an injunction this week which would require the department to halt work and hold another public inquiry into the project. They argue that since earlier inquiries, two Civil War battle sites in Newbury have been listed as of national importance.