'Le grand cock-up' that led to British Rail's missing link: Christian Wolmar reports on the trail of blunders, confusion and changes of mind that have blighted plans for a high-speed rail route to the Channel Tunnel

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The Independent Online
IN THE new Franglais which will be the lingua franca of the staff who will work on the Channel tunnel trains, it should be called 'le grand cock-up'. A decade of chaos will leave Britain without a high-speed rail link for almost a decade after the tunnel opens.

In the past fortnight, the embarrassments have continued. First, the announcement of the new route for the link had to be postponed because, stupidly, the Government had scheduled it for a day when Labour was able to dictate (and wreck) the Parliamentary timetable. Then most of the details leaked out through an advertisement placed with the Kent Messenger and not withdrawn quickly enough. The Secretary of State for Transport, John MacGregor, was described as 'close to meltdown' with rage.

Worse, Norman Lamont announced in his Budget speech that St Pancras would be the London terminus for the rail link - but a week later Mr MacGregor said that no decision had been made between King's Cross and St Pancras. Behind the scenes, the British Rail board is still pressing for its pounds 1.4bn King's Cross low- level station. It fears that the change in plans will mean the demolition of two listed gasometers, and pounds 40m compensation to the developers of the 134-acre site behind the station.

Last week came the biggest rail-link U-turn yet - public money will be used for part of the cost, even though, at the instigation of the ferry companies and Mrs Thatcher, the Channel Tunnel Act made this illegal. Ministers will now have to use the loophole that commuters, as well as international passengers, will travel on the railway.

By contrast, the French TGV Nord high-speed link to Lille is set to open in six weeks' time; according to Jean-Paul Masse, a journalist on La Vie du Rail, the French 'smile slightly contemptuously' at all this mess in befuddled Albion.

So why le cock-up? Answer: a mixture of history, ideology and incompetence. The people of Kent, too, must take a bit of the blame. The previous attempt to build a Channel tunnel, in the mid-Seventies, foundered when they rose against the idea of a rail link cutting a four-track swath through thecounty. Without it, the economics did not add up.

It was also Kent protests that created havoc in the late Eighties when the idea of a link was again mooted. BR, unused to development projects (having never built a mainline railway), did not help matters by suggesting four alternative routes, causing blight everywhere.

Unlike in the Seventies, link this time was a late addition rather than an integral part of the tunnel project. Contrary to what its detractors say, the link is less about cutting a few minutes - half an hour actually - off the journey from London to Paris and Brussels than creating extra capacity on rail lines in the South-east. When the Bill was going through Parliament in 1986/7, figures of railway usage suggested that the number of passengers on Network SouthEast was in a long- term decline of about 1 per cent a year. This would have created room for the Channel trains.

In fact, between 1983/4 and 1988/9, the number of commuters went up by over a quarter. Provisional schedules for the international Eurostar trains show that in the rush hours they will be delayed because of congestion. This mistake has deep roots. Alastair Dick, a transport consultant, comments: 'The problem is that the Department of Transport makes detailed forecasts for journeys by road and air, but provides none for rail journeys. This means it cannot plan properly.'

Neither the department nor BR was therefore in a position to spot the changing role of rail in Europe. Stimulated by the TGV in France, and similar projects in Germany, Spain and Italy, rail was becoming the preferred means of travel for journeys up to 1,000 kilometres. Forecasts of passengers using the international rail services through the tunnel have shot up.

In Britain, this change went unnoticed because there is no rail lobby. SNCF, although nationalised, has a semi-independent status as a Societe Anonyme, able to borrow money on the markets and make its own decisions about investments. In Britain, BR is a creature of the Government and the Treasury. Jean-Paul Masse says that in France, finance ministers have little to do with the railway: 'The choice is clear. You can have a good railway with a big debt like in France, or a lousy one with a little debt like in Britain.'

Its weakness puts BR at the mercy of government whim. So when, after faffing about for three years with its four routes, it submitted its choice in May 1991, Michael Heseltine, the then environment secretary, persuaded the Cabinet to drop it at a stroke. Intent on a vague concept of developing the East Thames Corridor, he persuaded Malcolm Rifkind to announce in October 1991 that a route through East London, developed by Ove Arup, would be chosen.

The route announced last week broadly follows the Arup route and this time the Kent people have been subdued by the recession. With only 11 houses needing to be demolished, the forthcoming month-long public consultation period is likely to be fairly uncontentious.

However, the prospects of the line being built 'by the end of the decade', as Mr MacGregor put it, are remote. Given that it is to be a joint public and private project, there are only two big barriers: the private and the public sectors.

The first doubt is whether the private sector will bite. The cost of the 68-mile link is put at pounds 2.4bn in the report published last week by Union Railways, the BR subsidiary, with a maximum of pounds 3bn. The financial return needed to attract the private sector must be at least 10 per cent in real terms - Trafalgar House wanted 12 per cent plus inflation last time - and the prospects for such a return are remote, as large infrastructure projects are bedevilled by cost overruns: pace the tunnel itself, now set to cost pounds 9bn, double its original estimate. The private sector is unlikely to invest without some government mollycoddling. The Treasury will not like it.

Alastair Dick calculates that around pounds 1.5bn will be needed from public funds to ensure a reasonable rate of return for the private sector. Sir Alastair Morton is scathing about the Treasury's role: 'In 25 years of dealing with government, the clearest trend I have seen is the growing power of the Treasury. It has become pre- eminent. Ministers propose, the Treasury disposes. They take pleasure out of knocking down proposals, particularly from lowly ministries like transport. They are delighted if a proposal has a line missing or a decimal point in the wrong place and they can reject it. Unlike in France, they don't see it in terms of national pride and national need.'

Sir Alastair is convinced that the Treasury will fight a rearguard action using machiavellian strategies. 'They will try to knock out the planned stations and junctions on the line, therefore limiting its use for commuters, and use this to say that less public money should be put in.'

Once the trains start running, the embarrassment for the Government as they trundle through Kent at 60mph - one-third the speed of the trains going along the French tracks - will heighten pressure for the link. But above all, what it really needs, to have any hope of being built quickly, is a Mr (or Ms) Link.

The big hope is that once Union Railways is privatised, its boss, probably the existing chairman, John Prideaux, a clever man who has handled the delicate task of producing the new route with sureness, will take on the mantle. Free of BR's shackles, he might be able to bat publicly for the link, but clearly last week's announcement of the route is only the beginning of the beginning.

(Photograph omitted)

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