Rail firms do battle over freight terminal

THE gloves have come off in a row between train operators First Capital Connect (FCC) and Network Rail over the proposed rail freight terminal near St Albans. FCC has condemned Network Rail s support for the development at the former Radlett Aerodrome sit

THE gloves have come off in a row between train operators First Capital Connect (FCC) and Network Rail over the proposed rail freight terminal near St Albans.

FCC has condemned Network Rail's support for the development at the former Radlett Aerodrome site, made clear in a letter submitted to the public inquiry which opened last week to decide if St Albans District Council was correct in refusing developers Helioslough planning permission for the terminal.

In an immediate response, FCC managing director Elaine Holt wrote to the inquiry's planning inspector, Andrew Phillipson, voicing the company's concern about an increase in rail freight on the Midland Main Line, which includes the Thameslink route.

And the letter made one extraordinary confession - that FCC was not aware of the rail freight terminal proposal until the middle of October this year despite all the publicity about the controversial project.

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In her letter to the inquiry, Ms Holt went so far as to suggest that Network Rail's actions in supporting the terminal plan might be unlawful because they were obliged to remain neutral in such situations.

FCC claimed Network Rail was already failing to satisfactorily maintain the rail infrastructure, blamed it for 55 per cent of delays and said that any greater usage would result in severe disruption to commuters and fewer trains.

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In her letter Ms Holt said: "A large element of the poor performance is due to Network Rail infrastructure problems which have been increasing year on year rather than reducing as planned. The worst-performing infrastructure on the Thameslink route is the Thameslink North section which is where the freight terminal is now being proposed."

FCC also claimed to be the first operator to formally complain to the Office of Rail Regulation about Network Rail's lack of detailed plans to improve performance - a move which has resulted in monitoring action being taken.

Consequently Ms Holt said she was surprised that Network Rail was contemplating an increase in freight traffic on an already "fragile" infrastructure.

According to FCC, its slow-line service would need to be suspended for up to six weeks while work went on to deepen the Elstree Tunnel so that the freight trains with their very high containers could fit underneath.

The rail company also said that with only one southern access to the proposed terminal, further hold-ups would be caused by freight trains from the north having to go further in towards London before turning around and then crossing the tracks to enter the site.

The letter concluded: "Overall we believe the introduction of the rail freight terminal and the accompanying increase in freight traffic on this congested section of a busy passenger rail route is ill-conceived and do not support it at all."

A spokesperson for Network Rail said: "We have an obligation to work with developers who are looking to grow the use of rail freight in line with Government objectives. We of course always look at the wider network picture and we believe that the proposal is consistent with the broader development of the network and other aspirations for growth."

St Albans MP Anne Main, who has joined forces with FCC, said the development would pose enormous problems for St Albans' 33,000 commuters who were the "life-blood for the local economy and indeed the national economy".

She said: "I know from my meetings with Elaine Holt that FCC are making huge efforts to try to improve and enhance the train services into London which is why I welcome their robust rejection of this proposal, which I am absolutely convinced will ruin commuter services causing disruption, delays and a decrease in services."

She added: "I am appalled that Network Rail is even tempted to support it, I suspect it's the big bucks of the developer that are clouding their judgment on this matter."

l The University of Herts graduation ceremonies next week means that the rail freight public inquiry will temporarily move from the Council Chamber to the Dagnall Street Baptist Church, which can hold up to 220 people.

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