The Tunnel Line to France: Doubts linger over Channel train link: After seven years, stations and sections of 68-mile rail route still await a final decision

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The Independent Online
SEVEN YEARS after the 68-mile high-speed Channel tunnel rail link was first mooted, there are still sections where the Government has not finalised the route and has made no decisions on the stations. But yesterday's announcement does allow many residents near the route to breathe easily for the first time.

A quarter of the route will now be in tunnels, including virtually all the last 10 miles from Barking to St Pancras in London. Any more tunnels would not only have pushed up the scheme's cost, but also made the journey increasingly unattractive for travellers who had already spent half an hour under the Channel.

Coming out of the Channel tunnel, the route to Ashford has been safeguarded for a long time and is left unchanged. However, one of the biggest surprises of yesterday's announcement was that two routes are still being considered at that point. One goes into the centre of Ashford where the international station is already being built, and then south- east through a marshy flood plain that environmentalists consider would be damaged.

The advantage for supporters of this route is that all the trains would have to pass through the town which, they feel, would have a regenerative effect on the local economy. That route had been dropped in 1989 but was reinstated yesterday for consideration, although it is unlikely to prove cheaper and will probably be dropped again when the final decision is made in the spring.

The alternative is the route announced in March 1993 around the north of Ashford alongside the M20, with a spur for trains stopping at the station.

The link will then go overground to Sandway, where a small 180metre (590ft) tunnel at an extra cost of pounds 2m has been added in response to local protesters worried about being squeezed between the M20, the A20 and the railway line. Another small 240-metre (787ft) tunnel has been agreed a little further down the track at Hollingbourne at a cost of pounds 4m, but local campaigners have, as expected, lost their campaign to have a long tunnel under the Weald and the North Downs right to the Medway.

Instead there is a little tunnel after Boxley and then another under part of the Downs, with the intervening parts giving travellers their best views of the 'Garden of England'. The possibility of a station at Nashenden has been dropped, having attracted neither local authority nor private sector support.

After crossing the Medway on a viaduct, and passing near Rochester, the link heads for Pepper Hill, where two options are being considered - a tunnel under the housing estate or a route around it.

Ebbsfleet, between Gravesend and Dartford, is the most likely site for an intermediate station but the Government, although favouring it over Rainham and Stratford, has not firmly committed itself because 'a final decision will depend upon the provision of satisfactory financing by the promoting group'.

At the Swanscombe marshes, the link crosses the Thames in a tunnel to Thurrock marshes and crosses the M25. A scheme for a tunnel through part of Thurrock has been rejected on cost grounds. A station at Rainham is unlikely to be built, as it would be considered to be a rival of Ebbsfleet.

At Barking, the link enters a tunnel which, apart from a short open concrete box at Stratford - where a station may be built - takes the trains through to just east of the Caledonian Road in north London where a large junction means many homes will be blighted.

The trains will end at St Pancras - with the plan for a pounds 1.4bn underground tunnel at King's Cross abandoned - where there will be six international platforms and three domestic ones - but not, at the earliest, until 2002.

(Map omitted)