Uphill puff for the great railway vision

Opposition is growing to a plan to build the first new line for a century
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The Independent Online
An ambitious plan to build the first major railway line in Britain for nearly a century is running into trouble after a tide of opposition from residents and local authorities.

The Department of Transport has been inundated with 13,000 letters opposing the line, which would carry freight from the east Midlands to the mouth of the Channel tunnel. It has received only 300 letters in support despite a generous compensation offer by the developer.

Central Railway, a private company which last year raised "several million pounds" to produce a plan for the railway, has put forward a pounds 3bn scheme for a 180-mile new line which includes a 6-mile tunnel under London. The scheme is to be discussed in Parliament before the recess, probably on 24 July, under a new procedure for major infrastructure projects, the Transport and Works Act 1992.

The line would start in Leicester and would carry lorries. It will be fed by two terminals, one near Rugby and the M1/M6 junction, the other near Denham in Buckinghamshire for traffic from the M40, M4 and M25.

The northern part of the route will use the bed of the old Great Central Railway, the last major line built in Britain which was closed as a result of the Beeching cuts. It would then link up with the Chiltern Line, veering off through west London in a tunnel between Kensington Olympia and Streatham in the south-west, and then, apart from a tunnel under the North Downs, it will run on existing track to the Channel.

Although the line would be mainly for freight, there is also a plan to build a Motorail terminal at White City in west London. By 2020, it would carry 160 trains each day.

But unprecedented opposition means that the project is unlikely to go ahead. Although ministers are duty bound to present it to Parliament, the Tories have remained neutral and the front benches of both Labour and the Liberal Democrats are against it.

The opposition seems odd as transferring freight to rail is supported by all parties. However, as Matthew Carrington, MP for Fulham, said: "Everyone wants to see more freight off the roads but when proposing to put a line in the wrong place, the effects are catastrophic."

In Willoughby, Leicestershire, Doug Dodds is typical of the opponents. He lives in an old station house right next to the line and says it would devastate his smallholding: "We have lived here for 30 years and this would ruin us."

Iain Sim, deputy planning director of Croydon, says that 62 houses and 40 offices or factories would have to be demolished and 130 properties might become uninhabitable. The council is highly critical of the lack of detail in Central Railway's plans and the company's failure to consider the environmental effects of the project.

Roy Marshall who lives in a street in south Croydon where 20 houses would have to be demolished, said: "Central have offered to buy houses for 25 per cent over the value and to pay pounds 3,000 removal costs but most people just don't want to move."

Opponents point to an alternative scheme to take lorry trailers on rail put forward by the Piggyback Consortium, a group of companies with rail interests, including Eurotunnel. Their plan is to upgrade the West Coast Main Line at a cost of around pounds 300m to allow freight to run through the tunnel to the Continent. Others question why the line would go through central London.

Central Railway's business plan has been questioned in a report by Ove Arup commissioned by the 33 local authorities affected. It suggests the construction cost would be more than 50 per cent above Central's estimate and the revenue for 2010 has been overestimated by nearly pounds 300m.

However, Andrew Gritten, chairman of Central Railway, is undaunted. He has just written to every member of Parliament and feels that most of the opposition is a result of nimbyism. He said: "You have to look at it in terms of national interest. There is a lot of support in getting freight off the roads." He added that many in the rail industry were worried about the new competition.

The issue is set to be debated just before the parliamentary recess. Mr Gritten admitted that if the plan were defeated in Parliament, the scheme would probably be dropped.