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A vote of confidence Earlier this week, the House of Commons debated the future of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link. Alastair McLellan listened in.

his debate has seen the House at its most facile. It has consisted almost entirely of a series of clichs and trite remarks about the strategic plan [for the Channel Tunnel Rail Link], the need to send messages and national pride. All those points were synthesised in a series of mini sound bites which honourable members uttered for the benefit of their local newspaper before they sharply and shortly left the Chamber.

Such was Alan Clarks typically high-handed dismissal of his colleagues contributions to last weeks 90 minute debate on the future of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link. The Tory maverick was plainly disgusted with the cosy consensus across party lines supporting the links construction.

Claiming that the project would cost 8bn, he warned that figure could easily double. The Eurostar service, he added to unbelieving laughter, runs perfectly well at the moment. Government should instead study alternatives to this lubricious and megalomaniac project.

However, finding himself in a minority of one, he shortly and sharply upped and left, perhaps to pen a further diatribe against the link for his local rag.

But for all his bluster Clark had a point. The debate, secured by East London MP Jim Fitzpatrick, was more of a lobbying exercise aimed at strengthening the governments resolve to get the link built. The only question the MPs appeared to be interested in examining was not whether the CTRL should go ahead, but when and how.

The only real divide came between those MPs who thought a phased construction the only realistic option and those who thought it wouldnt work.

Fitzpatrick, the Glasgow born fire-fighter whose constituency encompasses the planned Stratford terminal, employed an impressive range of arguments to drive home his case for the construction of the link as originally envisaged. The usual regeneration and integrated transport lines were trotted out, but the Labour MP also claimed that strengthening East Londons links with the rest of the country would help Docklands to be a wholly appropriate home to the proposed Greater London Authority and its mayor.

He even commented that had the link been built by now, as it should have been, life would be a lot easier for West Ham United football supporters to travel to away games next season, when we qualify for Europe.

Switching tack, he attacked the proposed phasing of the scheme: Waterloo is not a real option because it does not have the capacity, particularly if the hope to move more freight by rail rather than road is to be realised.

Fitzpatrick found support from Tory Damian Green. The Ashford, Kent, MP has the advantage of having the CTRL station in his constituency already finished and operating. But he accused London & Continental Railways of being determined to keep secret the fact that it is more convenient for the whole of south east of England to drive to Ashford and travel to the Continent from there, than to struggle in to Waterloo.

Turning to the possibility of phasing the project, he commented: I have been assured by reasonably well qualified railway engineers that the amount of commuter traffic using the lines from Canterbury and the Medway towns to London will mean that either we will have to cut the commuter traffic in the rush hour or Eurostar will not be able to run in the rush hour.

However, like many MPs he believed he could see the writing on the wall for the projects likely construction plan.

If the government cannot find the subsidy to build the whole link at once, warm words about building future phases after a first phase stopping at Southfleet will not be enough. [There must be] a firm timetable for building the entire line, with penalty clauses written in so that the timetable can be enforced. Almost the worst eventuality would be for part of the link to be built, with all the disruption that would cause, followed by vague words about how the rest of it would be built in phases over the years to come, but for the years to tick by with phases two and three delayed.

West Bromwich MP Peter Snape went for the pragmatic approach, claiming that Fast Track to Europe group (see News) was being unrealistic in saying that the project shouldnt be phased. Building the southern section first was the likeliest and cheapest option in his eyes.

However, as a former railway man he was quick to point out that across the country, road bridges are being strengthened to take 44 tonne lorries which is a direct subsidy to the road haulage industry by the taxpayer. Yet both the previous and current government said that public money cannot be found for the great project which is the CTRL.

Conservative Richard Ottaway also called on the supporters of the full link to face up to the realities. He added: There is every possibility that a two phase solution may be found, with Railtrack in joint venture with LCR, constructing phase one from Cheriton to Ebbsfleet station by 2002, and phase two from Ebbsfleet to St Pancras by 2005.

Chatham and Aylesford MP Jonathan Shaw illustrated how tightly the CTRL is tied into transport provision across the south east. He and a number of local authorities had successfully fought to have the planned widening of the M2 undertaken at the same time as the construction of bridges which would take the CTRL across the Medway valleys.

However, after Labours 1 May victory, he complained, the new government announced a review of the road programme, including the M2 widening.

We made representations to press the point about the delay and the effect that it could have on co-ordinating the concurrent construction, explained Shaw. The matter was resolved and the Secretary of State for Transport [Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott] announced that the M2 widening would go ahead. He rightly pointed that the project was part of a strategic transport infrastructure, in that the M2 would link up with CRTL station [at Ebbsfleet].

Minister for Transport in London Glenda Jackson, who was replying to the debate for the government, as expected kept her cards close to her chest.

She announced: At a time when fiscal prudence is needed, it would be irresponsible almost unthinkable to commit such large additional sums of taxpayers money, no matter how strong the wish for improved links.

And just as she had not ruled out any extra money for CTRL large additional sums being open to wide interpretation so she tiptoed through the phasing question.

It is important to remember that Parliament authorised a railway between Cheriton and St Pancras which follows a very carefully defined alignment. Our contract with LCR requires the construction of the entire railway approved by Parliament. The Channel Tunnel Rail Link Act 1997 envisages a whole line from St Pancras to the Channel tunnel, so there must be an intention to build all of it when the powers are used.

Little about timing there and no doubt the precise definition of an intention is being wrestled with by ministers, lawyers, civil servants, bankers and engineers as you read this article.

That debate is likely to be much more involved and last a lot longer than 90 minutes.

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