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Extra tunnelling channel rail link urged

TWO more sections of tunnelling are needed to make the proposed route of the Channel tunnel rail link acceptable to Kent County Council, writes Christian Wolmar.

In a report, which is expected to be endorsed by the council on Thursday, Kent comes out very much in favour of the link, because it will provide a quick service to London for local commuters and because it could stimulate regeneration in north Kent through the construction of an international station at Ebbsfleet, between Dartford and Gravesend. This is in sharp contrast to the council's attitude in the late 1980s, when it rejected all four suggestions for the route put forward by British Rail.

The council is, however, seeking to have a proposed tunnel through the North Downs extended under the villages of Boxley and Detling to avoid damaging an attractive landscape. It also wants a tunnel built through the centre of Ashford, rather than having an overground line around the town. Kent says these two tunnels would add about 5 per cent to the current estimated cost - without stations - of pounds 2.5bn. Allan Mowatt, the council's rail link team leader, said: 'We are firmly in favour of the link being built and the sooner the better in order to avoid further uncertainty.'

The Government is already committed to building Ashford station, but other stations will only be built if there is support in the public and private sectors.

The council report says that most of Kent's other criteria for supporting the line have been met, except concern that not enough is being done to ensure that freight is diverted off roads and on to rail.

Last month, the Government received a report on the link's proposed route from Union Railways, the BR subsidiary charged with drawing up the plans.

The Government is supposed to publish the final route by the end of the year, in preparation for the publication of a Parliamentary Bill in March. However, that schedule now seems threatened by the Treasury, which has put pressure on the Department of Transport to make cuts. No money was made available for the link in next year's government spending plans as, by then, the link is supposed to be handed over to the private sector. But private companies are reluctant to pick up the project until after the Parliamentary Bill is passed, which may push the final completion date beyond 2000.