6 OCTOBER 1973, Page 10


Chunnel, Maplin or neither?

David Wragg

I once had the difficult and unwelcome task of helping to push parts of the motorway programme through the various statutory stages which preceded construction, dealing as sympathetically as possible with those who quite reasonably objected to having their property or their favourite part of England succumb to the 'onward advance of road transport. Surprisingly enough, and contrary. to the opinions held by the cynics, it was often possible to resolve objections. One cardinal rule had to be obeyed, however, in that it was not possible to move a motorway, or one of its related roads, from one person's land onto someone else's, unless the would-be recipient of this doubtful blessing agreed!

That Whitehall had such qualms about transferring the burdens of the late twentieth century must raise a hollow laugh amongst the 'Defenders of Essex' and other members of the anti-Maplin lobby, who feel that they are the victims of a plot by the residents in the other sites considered by the Roskill Committee. Yet, similar thoughts must now be rising in that part of Kent likely to suffer from the access roads and marshalling yards for the Channel Tunnel, since this project is going ahead at the expense of some delay on Maplin.

There is a ray of light in this decision, however, in that it goes some way to conceding the point that Maplin and the Channel Tunnel are contradictory projects, Most air traffic is relatively short distance, under six hundred miles, and it follows that a successful Channel Tunnel would mean an under-used Maplin, or a successful ,Maplin could, mean an under-used Channel Tunnel, since there are no plans to close Heatkrow or Gatwick. In fact, there is a case not just for doubting whether both should be built, but for doubting whether either should be built.

Of course an invading army will not arrive on these shores via the Chunnel, but we may well regret putting ourselves into the position of being open to blackmail from both our own and the French militant railwaymen. It is also true that the Chunnel, to put oneself on familiar terms with the beast by using the name given it by its friends, is a tempting target for saboteurs, and the smug officel assurances that it could be evacuated within thirty minutes and thoroughly checked in three hours are just not good enough.

One railway manager once told me that the railways did not expect to attract traffic from north of London through the Chunnel, since the passengers would travel by air and the freight would find existing South and East Coast ferry services far more direct for the majority of journeys. It is certainly true that many UK to Europe journeys would have to make a detour through a congested part of England in order to travel through the Channel Tunnel. British Rail, with a considerable interest in the Chunnel, is spending e80 million throughout the 'seventies on modernising its highly profitable ferry operations, and the ports and private enterprise ferry operators have been keeping pace with this type of investment.

Maplin is perhaps a more difficult project to condemn. The airlines certainly dislike the idea, and in spite of official pressure for Maplin, it does seem that many at the British Airports Authority prefer an alternative site — one of the most recent suggestions being the Sussex coast between Brighton and Worthing! It is true that the access routes to Maplin will largely negate the benefits of having a coastal site in terms of disturbance to property, and unspoiled coastline is sufficiently scarce in this country to require active protection. If a treatment plant for sewage near Heathrow can give that airport a safety problem arising from flocks of birds, then the coastal site and the migratory position of Maplin make it that much more hazardous. In fact, coastal sites with an over-water approach and take-off are not safer than inland airport sites, but tend to be more dangerous because of the poorer level of navigational aids and the greater difficulty in effecting a rescue should an accident occur during take-off or landing. Something in the region of eighty per cent of serious aircraft accidents occur during take-off or landing, and, contrary to belief, in most cases the majority of passengers can escape. However, calm water makes for a hard landing and rough water means that an aircraft sinks more quickly, in addition to making rescue operations more difficult, creating panic amongst passengers and so on.

It would be easy to say that the money earmarked for Maplin could be spent on developing quieter aircraft with improved take-off characteristics, but in truth this is not the Maplin money but the Concorde money.

Concorde has resulted in that proportion of public funds which could be earmarked for advanced technology being spent on a project which incorporates little advanced tecbnology. One of the disturbing pieces of public and media brainwashing of late" has been the pretence by ministers that Concorde incOrporates advanced technology, when in fact the British Aircraft Corporation and Aerospatiale decided to use existing technologY rather than risk the problems of advanced technology, which ieffectively, led to the cancellation of the American Boeing 2707 supersonic airliner. The point remains that we should not put all of our eggs into one basket, or even two or three big baskets. New aircraft able to operate in a civilised manner from many provincialf airports, and the continued modernisation 0 the ferry services and ports, offer a more convenient and flexible alternative, as well as a cheaper one, to the massive projects, currently being forced through. Even it Maplin does also have a port aspect, which is by no means certain, due to fears about overcapacity in British ports, it would be ordealble to build any new deep sea port in the West, where the deep water is already, and., away from the congested, shallow an collision-infested English Channel an° southern North Sea.