Letter: Light at the end of the Channel tunnel or a disaster for the people of Kent?

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The Independent Online
Sir: Alastair Morton makes fun of the Treasury's reluctance to commit public money to a high-speed rail link to the Channel tunnel. It should be pointed out that in 1985 BR, with the tacit support of the Channel Tunnel Group, Eurotunnel's predecessor and parent, gave assurances that such a link would not be necessary. This helped to still opposition in Kent, which had been an important factor in the collapse of the previous Channel tunnel proposal in the mid-1970s.

This history makes it all the more unacceptable that people in Kent, and in Essex and London too, should now be asked to accept a line more environmentally damaging than it need be in order to save money. The irony is that even this relatively cheap line may prove to be superfluous.

Eurotunnel's forecasts of the traffic that the tunnel's through-rail passenger service would attract from the airlines were never credible. Fares on the service were underestimated, as was the ability of the airlines to cut their own fares.

More important still, the very coarse system of zoning used to describe travellers' origins and destinations made it seem that, in South-east England, access to the rail terminals would always be easier than access to an airport, whereas for many, if not most travellers, the reverse will be true. BR's forecasts are more modest than Eurotunnel's. But BR still predicts that 80 per cent of travellers between Greater London and Greater Paris, who would otherwise have gone by air, will switch to the tunnel; this is implausible.

Despite all this, the tunnel's through-rail passenger service could be of value to the nation. It is the only tunnel service which it might be possible to make reasonably safe against terrorism, and it could help to relieve the congested and environmentally damaging air system. There is a good case for reallocating the slots at Heathrow and Gatwick, now used for flights to Paris and Brussels, to long-haul flights.

If that were done, the tunnel might indeed attract the forecast number of rail passengers. But the speed of the trains would no longer be crucial and the idea of having two rail links between the tunnel and central London, with termini only two miles apart, would make even less sense than at present. Waterloo could still serve central London, and access to southern England and the Midlands could be provided by the now under-used line, Folkestone-Ashford-Tonbridge-Reigate-Guildford-Farnborough-Reading.

Yours faithfully,

STEPHEN PLOWDEN

London, NW1

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