RAILTRACK IS to drop plans to switch 400,000 lorry loads of freight a year from the roads to the West Coast Main Line.
Chairman Sir Robert Horton is understood to have told transport minister John Reid last week that after studying the route for more than four years, a piggyback service to carry standard lorry semi-trailers on rail wagons is unviable.
The decision has drawn sharp criticism from campaigners, and comes despite government promises to fund well over half of the pounds250M estimated cost. The news was revealed just as Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott was branding the rail industry a 'national disgrace' and stressing the need to cut exhaust emissions at last week's Labour Party conference in Blackpool.
Transport minister for London Glenda Jackson told NCE: 'If Railtrack is saying that it is not going ahead with the scheme I am surprised because we have pledged to use money from privatisation of the National Air Traffic Services to fund it.'
Speaking at a fringe meeting at the Labour Party conference on Thursday, roads minister Lord Whitty stressed the importance of shifting freight from road to rail. He said the Piggyback Project should focus on key transport corridors such as the M6 and added: 'We will be looking for a firm proposition from Railtrack.'
But Railtrack head of freight Robin Gisby confirmed that the company is dropping the scheme on the West Coast route. He said the project would cause capacity problems for passenger services on the route, which is being upgraded to take 225km/h tilting trains.
'We can't yet see an economic argument for that route so we have got to look at alternatives. We do not want deliberately to intensify traffic on a section of the network that everyone is moaning about at the moment,' he said.
The company is now understood to be considering alternative routes to Birmingham from the south, including the Midland Main Line.
Chairman of the Piggyback Consortium, Lord Berkeley described Railtrack as 'worse than incompetent'. His group of pro-rail freight organisations - which includes local authorities, port operators and rail freight companies - has been developing the idea for five years.
'Railtrack was very enthusiastic about this until two months ago when it was presented to the main board and finance director for the first time. This is either a cock up or a conspiracy,' he said.
Railtrack has already upgraded part of the route to cope with low height trailers for Parcelforce. But Berkeley is pushing the company to raise the gauge to allow for 4m high trailers which are standard across Europe and account for 80% of UK traffic. This would mean enlarging nine tunnels and raising other bridges.
Freight operator English Welsh & Scottish Railway has already ordered 30 new piggyback wagons for next year and is understood to be angry about Railtrack's U-turn. A spokesman claimed the West Coast line was key and said: 'How long is developing a new route going to take and is Railtrack going to change its mind again in a few years? We need some action now.'
Railtrack would not confirm the decision. A source claimed simply that the delay in submitting a bid for government funding for the scheme was caused by the rail freight operators failing to decide what they want from the scheme. 'Clearly with a bid this size we are not going to submit anything until we have all the supporting information,' said the source.