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Columnist of the Year Sydney Lenssen Forget the link, build a bridge

Rumour has it that the Brit Awards have moved construction out of the relegation zone in John Prescotts league of industry favourites, which might explain why London & Continental Railways has been given another 30 days to solve the Channel Tunnel Rail Link crisis.

LCRs claim for more public subsidy on the 5bn project stems from an inability to generate more income from Eurostar. Trains still run at a loss with passenger numbers lingering around six million a year rather than the nine million prayed for.

Eurotunnel itself is still deep in the mire and its recent restructuring is unlikely to last.

Hardly a wonder then that the same bankers are sceptical about returns on the rail link and frightened at the thought of expensive tunnelling under the Thames and east London. It is as plain as a pikestaff that the banks want to recoup some of their previous losses on the Chunnel and see the CTRL as an appropriate vehicle.

But why do we as a nation want to spend 5bn to cut 35 minutes off the journey time and end up in St Pancras instead of Waterloo?

Now if Eurostar plus CTRL are to attract nine million passengers a year, that translates into return tickets costing on average an extra 50 to allow a modest 10% return on investment. The cheapest regular fare will be 220.

Can LCR, Prescott or investors really expect to increase ticket prices and double sales by cutting just half an hour from journey times? Thats daft. No wonder Professor Lewis Lesley of Liverpool John Moores University writes in NCE 19 February that the project does not stack up for the private capital market, and this truth remains whether the private promoter is Railtrack, Eurorail or any other consortium

One powerful argument for a more efficient rail link is to help freight and passengers from anywhere north of Watford to get to Continental Europe more easily.

If the government is prepared to spend 2bn, then get Railtrack cracking with a track realignment and resignalling project taking all cross-London traffic around the capital. At the same time urgent track and signal measures should proceed in Kent and through the suburbs leading to Waterloo International. That station can cope with a vast increase in passengers, well into the next century. And it is there!

Half the passengers on Eurostar come from Continental Europe and want to visit London. They havent a clue about the pros and cons of Waterloo versus St Pancras. What really counts is not to chop 35 minutes off the three hour journey, but to make sure 99% of the trains run on time.

Strenuous efforts should be made to retrieve the properties and goods bequeathed to LCR and those receipts set aside for a couple of years until Eurotunnels option to build the next cross Channel link expires in 2000.

Meanwhile consortia should be invited to submit firm priced proposals for the construction of a road-only bridge across the Channel. My hunch is this could be achieved without subsidy.

Latest cost estimates for the Messina suspension bridge to Sicily stand at 1.1bn for a 3.3km main span carrying road and rail. Without rail traffic, the Channel could be bridged by suspension bridges with a maximum main span of 2.5km. Two suspension spans plus side spans would give a total length of 7.5km, and two such structures would be strategically placed to clear the shipping lanes using the sandbanks, and connected by viaducts. The latest cost estimate is about 4bn.

Against all his basic instincts Prescott should allow those banks with money locked into the Chunnel first option to invest in the new bridge.

Such a bridge will surely lead to a shift in the number of those wanting and willing to drive to and from Continental Europe.

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