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Fourth north-south mainline on the cards

A NEW SUPER FAST mainline railway must be built to boost capacity between London and the North, the shadow Strategic Rail Authority chairman Sir Alastair Morton believes.

Morton's view was expressed as the sSRA responded this week to the Virgin Group's recent £3bn proposal to raise capacity on the East Coast Main Line. Virgin wants to use French-style TGV trains on long stretches of new line to speed up the route.

But in an exclusive interview for NCE's sSRA supplement to be published 25 May, Morton warned that a new line was needed to cope with the 60% increase in traffic predicted over the next ten years and further growth beyond that. He urged that studies start now.

He added that a new line could take as long as 20 years to complete, allowing for planning permission and design. Even the Channel Tunnel took 10 years to build, he said, and that was 'the fastest project in history'. It also had no 'NIMBYs' to deal with.

To support this view, the sSRA this week backed the plan by Virgin and its bid partner Stagecoach, but ruled it insufficient to win the new ECML franchise.

The sSRA said it did not believe the complete rail scheme could be built in time to relieve East Coast capacity pressure.

Instead, it said plans for a fourth north-south main line - potentially one of the largest civil engineering projects in the country - should be studied separately.

However, Virgin maintains it could open high speed sections on the ECML by 2009-10. It added this week that its bid 'remained very much on the table' but was 'looking forward to discussing the implications' of the sSRA's latest announcement.

The sSRA believes more time is needed and fears the line may or may not fit alongside the ECML. To resolve the problem it has instructed both shortlisted train operating companies bidding for the ECML franchise to 'commit' to participating in studies for a separate high speed line, as part of their ECML bid.

ECML is one of three re-bids for train operating franchises. The early refranchising is intended to stimulate new ideas for infrastructure investment. In return, train operators would receive extended operating periods until 2020.

Virgin's high speed ECML line plan was to operate a fleet of 330km/h trains on upgraded track from 2010. The trains would run at lower speeds on ordinary line from 2006. The new parallel super fast line sections would cost more than £3bn. But Virgin would require only half of the £2bn investment programme already under way by Railtrack.

Rival bidder and franchise incumbent GNER plans to invest in 225km/h tilting trains, phased in by 2007. However, this scheme would make full use of Railtrack's upgrade spend and includes removing major line bottlenecks.

But the sSRA said this week it needed to hear more about plans within both bids to cope with early increases in passenger and freight demand. It also wanted to hear from both bidders about 'high speed enhancements' to the ECML after 2010.

GNER said on Monday that it welcomed the sSRA statement because 'it sets out in more detail what is required'. An sSRA decision on the ECML franchise bid is expected to be announced in July.

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