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Consultants battle to save jobs

BATTLE PLANS are being laid by consultants working on the Channel Tunnel Rail Link to save around 900 jobs under threat if London & Continental Railways fails to solve its funding crisis.

Rail Link Engineering, the consortium of Ove Arup, Bechtel, Halcrow and Systra, responsible for design and project management, has been distancing itself from LCR all week. And in statements released to the press the consortium has come out fighting, stressing that the technical aspects of the project have been a success.

Under the terms of the concession agreement all the CTRL intellectual property - together with the railway lands and Eurostar - would be handed back to the government if LCR cannot find additional funds in the next 23 days. Design documents would then be looked after by consortium Mott- Parsons-Gibb, which is acting as consultant to the government.

But senior industry observers are predicting that should the project be rescued by another bidder, RLE's shareholders will fight hard to maintain their interests.

'If LCR drops out there will be an enormous scramble between the consulting engineers to retain an involvement in the project,' said Costain chief executive John Armitt, former chief executive of LCR subsidiary Union Railways.

An RLE spokeswoman claimed it was too early to tell what would happen to staff. The 850 at RLE are entirely seconded from the shareholding companies. A further 100 work directly for Union Railways, the client engineering company.

'Things aren't crystal clear. People work on all sorts of different terms and conditions,' she said.

Engineering staff themselves complained of being kept in the dark, and said they feared the worst. 'We'd like to know what's going on. Obviously we're very worried about our jobs,' said one engineer on Monday night.

A spokeswoman for Ove Arup, which has 120 staff working for RLE, confirmed that the company is in turmoil. She claimed: 'All efforts are now being made to position ourselves well and make sure we aren't affected if LCR pulls out. Whoever takes the project on, we obviously want to work with them.'

A Halcrow source refused to talk about its plans to limit damage, but was up-beat about the future for the 140 staff working for RLE. 'We don't foresee a problem keeping them on. The market is buoyant at the moment,' he said.

LCR claimed on Tuesday that Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott had indicated he did not want the project to stop dead. 'He wants to retain some expertise at least until the project gets to a particular stage but we don't know what that stage is yet,' an LCR spokesman said. But he warned: 'If LCR goes into liquidation it cannot afford to sustain the full project team for very long.'

LCR chairman Sir Derek Hornby acknowledged that the funding problems were solely due to the shortfall in Eurostar revenues and described the technical side of the project as 'the one bright spot'.

'The capital cost is pretty much as we forecast when the tenders went out last year,' he said.

His comments were backed up by RLE project director Ken Turnbull, who said RLE staff could be proud of what they had achieved. 'Our team has made an enormous amount of progress in the last 18 months. We very much hope we can continue to apply our skills and knowhow to this project,' he said.

Matthew Jones

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