Now the pounds 640m cross-Channel question: There's many a slip 'twixt the tunnel and London, says Alastair Morton

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The Independent Online
A COUPLE of weeks ago we celebrated the fifth birthday of Eurotunnel's campaign for a Channel tunnel rail link. Now John MacGregor, the Secretary of State for Transport, seems to have given us our birthday present: a 'go-ahead' for the New Line has come leaking and stumbling into the light of day. If it is a bankable promise, it is hugely welcome. But three questions must be answered.

First, can preparations be held to the desired timetable of parliamentary approval early next year, with a tunnel opening by 2000?

Second, how will the New Line get to the King's Cross/St Pancras area and link with the east coast and west coast main lines; and when will an international station be built at Ashford to honour the promise that won Kent's support for the Channel tunnel and the rail link?

Third, has the Treasury unfrozen sufficiently to form a viable partnership with private sector capital to build the new link? We know the old girl says she's hot to trot; but we do not yet know if she is able to loosen her stays enough to stay the course. Thus we shall not know if the project has 'lift-off' until the Treasury entrusts herself to a real-life partnership with private capital. When will that be? The Jubilee Line is still not stitched into a joint venture, many months after a comparable announcement. Some of the benefits to New Line commuters depend on Crossrail - to be built by whom, when?

Why do I think the New Line is hugely welcome? A number of special interests, assisted by the nitwits who gather on these occasions, have proclaimed that the New Line is all about saving 15 minutes off an executive's comfortable journey from London to Paris. Mr MacGregor has put them straight: it will be 33 minutes less.

But the rail link is actually about the south-east London and Kent rail networks' lack of capacity to take both tunnel traffic and commuters. We can only estimate the pace at which rail traffic through the tunnel - freight and passengers - will increase from 65 trains each way every 24 hours in 1995 to 165 trains, and beyond. The tunnel can carry even more; one day next century, perhaps the figure will be 265 a day. The rate of growth will depend on how British Rail and the French and Belgian railways set about attracting passengers, in competition with the short-haul airlines, and freight, in competition with the long- haul truckers. But if privatisation of BR is not carried out clumsily, post- recession rail traffic into Kent will soon hit the network's ceiling.

Road congestion and pollution are modern curses, so the New Line will be of great benefit. It will relieve traffic in Kent and south-east London, which happen to lie between the Rest of Britain and the Rest of the Single Market, on which our living depends.

We need the New Line in place by 1996, which is why we started to campaign for it in 1988. By 2000, the evidence of that need will be all around us and overwhelming. It is already late, but I congratulate Mr MacGregor on getting the line launched through a hybrid bill, with the necessary promise of government support. He is the fifth secretary of state to try.

Will St Pancras serve as well as King's Cross? I hope so, but we must wait to see how BR's privatisable and increasingly autonomous subsidiary, Union Railways, proposes to link Paris and Brussels with Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow, or with Leeds, Newcastle and Edinburgh.

With the New Line in place in about eight years, Independent readers will see train times from Peterborough to central Paris of about three- and-a-quarter hours, and downtown Birmingham to Brussels in just a few minutes more (not including the time taken to change trains at St Pancras/ King's Cross). Our relief from air traffic and runway congestion begins next year - Waterloo to the Gare du Nord in about three hours - but it will reach a European scale when the New Line brings rail times from London to other big cities closer to those achieved by air travel.

Meanwhile, did you know that at present it takes almost as long to go to Canterbury from London by train as to our second cathedral city, York? Or that the Transmanche Super Trains, based on the French TGV, will make less noise at similar speeds than an InterCity 225 or 125?

And now for the pounds 640m question: can the New Line be financed? My figure is not entirely a facile jest: I would like to see whether the Union Railways budgeted cost profile could be made finance-able on world capital markets with about pounds 640m of accurately applied funding from the public purse. The key words are 'accurately applied'. This sum might just suffice, if the careful planning implied by those words permitted Union Railways to control the project cost.

I do not expect the Treasury to seek my advice, however, given the way, in the light of Eurotunnel's experiences, I have lectured it on this issue over the past five years.

Sir Alastair Morton is group chief executive of Eurotunnel.