Protests as BR considers new tunnel link route

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The Independent Online
Protesters in Kent are preparing for another round of battles over the Channel tunnel rail link after British Rail's admission that it is looking at potential new routes for the track.

Kent councillors are furious that BR's plans are beginning to leak out, causing potential blight to thousands of households. The county's planning chairman, Michael Odling, said: 'This is not being done in a sensible way. It is causing blight and affecting a lot of people. People in Kent have lived long enough with doubt, blight and speculation.'

Rows will further delay the construction of the link, which is not expected to be completed before the beginning of the next century.

A 450m (1,476ft) path along the rail link's route in Kent, from Detling near Maidstone through to the Channel, had been 'safeguarded' by Kent council, ensuring that no new developments were carried out.

It is clear, however, that several deviations from the route are becoming preferred options for Union Railways, the BR subsidiary that is responsible for planning the link. In at least three places, it is expected that a new path will be put forward in Union Railways' report to the Government, which it will submit at the end of this year.

The crossing of the Medway River is no longer expected to be next to the M2 motorway bridge. Instead, a route further down river is likely to be chosen to enable a station on the west bank serving the Medway towns to be built. Although this idea will be welcomed by local commuters, it will cause potential blight over a large urban area.

The route north of Detling is no longer expected to go through a tunnel across the North Downs, requiring a significant realignment of the route.

BR has admitted that it is unlikely to build a tunnel under Ashford. Instead, the route will be shifted north of the town, closer to the M20. Ashford International Station will no longer be on the main track but instead trains will be diverted on to a spur that will serve the station.

The type of incident that has angered Kent council is BR's dithering over the Bluebells Estate on the A229 between Maidstone and the Medway towns. Built in the 1980s, BR was forced to buy it when it put forward its proposed route. When this was rejected, however, in favour of the eastern approach to London by the then Secretary of State for Transport, Malcolm Rifkind, last autumn, BR started selling properties on it. Now, however, the estate is likely to be on the preferred route and BR is seeking to buy back properties it has sold. 'This is completely unsatisfactory,' Mr Odling said.

The report being drawn up by Union Railways must take into account the economic and environmental effects and it is likely to suggest a number of options setting out the consequences for each. In particular, BR is desperate to reduce the original pounds 4.5bn expected cost by at least a third and that underlies the rethinking. It also must make its proposals favourable to the private sector which, under present legislation, is the only possible source of finance.

In London, there are suggestions that the Stratford to King's Cross route will be built overland through Hackney and Islington.