High-speed rail link between London and Scotland postponed indefinitely

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The Independent Online

Official plans for a new high-speed link between London and the North drawn up by Britain's rail chief have been put off indefinitely.

While Richard Bowker, chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA), intended to begin a consultation process on the £36bn project last summer, it was postponed until the autumn and then until the end of last year. Yesterday the authority was unable to say when it would begin.

The 220mph railway was aimed at cutting journey times by half. Although no Scottish destination for the link had been fixed, it was calculated that trains would take little over two hours to reach Edinburgh from London. The scheme is known to be a high-profile victim of a government clampdown on spending and on the activities of Mr Bowker and the SRA.

The Independent revealed yesterday that the SRA's annual strategy document had been scrapped amid concerns about its implications for public spending. Earlier in the month, this newspaper also disclosed that the Department for Transport intended to strip the SRA of some of its powers because it believed the network was running out of control.

A draft consultation document in the possession of The Independent, which shows the SRA's considerable enthusiasm for the high-speed link, has never seen the light of day. Ministers believe that the network is sucking in huge quantities of taxpayers' money without any tangible improvements to services.

The unpublished document concludes about the new link: "The work we have carried out suggests that a north-south high-speed line could alleviate congestion on the strategic rail network and would offer an attractive alternative to many using other modes [of transport]." While the document asks for comments from all interested parties it comes to the conclusion that the economic return would be "very substantial indeed".

It also points out that many other European countries already have 220mph railways, including France, Spain, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Slovenia.

News of the indefinite delays to one of Mr Bowker's pet projects will increase speculation in the industry about the SRA chairman's future. Soon after his appointment, Mr Bowker made it clear that he would not be content simply to manage the network as it is, but would insist on drawing up a vision of its future.

A spokesman for the SRA said of the proposed project: "People would ask, how could we possibly consult on the high-speed link, when we've got so much to fix. It's about priorities." He said the industry first needed to sort out improvements to the existing east and west coast routes between London and Scotland. "The industry still needs to go through cold turkey on costs," he said.

A spokesman for the Department for Transport said that the document was in draft form and was not yet in a state to be published.