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Will the Heathrow-Crossrail spat set a dangerous precedent?

How often on a train ride in the UK have you stared out of the window as the train slows slightly and a ghostly, vacant platform comes into view? 

Often an old Victorian relic of the Beeching cuts in the 1960s, disused stations litter branch lines across the country.

And, though this picture may be a rose-tinted reminder of our rail infrastructure as it once was – it is most certainly not supposed to be one that you would relate to when thinking about services on the forthcoming Crossrail line.

Yet, if certain events come to pass, users of London’s brand spanking new £14.8bn line could see themselves unable to use the section of line leading up to and including Heathrow Airport.

Although this predicament is unlikely to come to pass, it is one potential outcome of a row over access charges for trains using Heathrow’s £1bn, five-mile long privately financed train line that runs from Paddington to the airport.

The line itself was built 20 years ago for the Heathrow Express and is due to be used by Crossrail trains when they begin operations next year.

Heathrow Express trains will continue to roll along the track to the airport, however Heathrow and the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) are engaged in a spat over what price, if any, users of the track should pay for that access.

Estimates vary, but Transport for London (TfL) could be asked to pay anything from £460 to £597 per train that stops at the stations that will serve Heathrow.

The bill will add up to a hefty £42m per year, and is one that the ORR deems too expensive but the airport defends in relation to its investment recovery charge which covers access to the line.

Some industry commentators have said that Heathrow cannot have it both ways, by encouraging new access routes to the airport on the one hand and maintaining charges to protect their interests.

The issue the High Court is due to rule on also has a wider implication on who exactly has the right to decide what charges can apply when it comes to access to infrastructure – and especially that which is privately financed.

In the Heathrow case it is, in theory, the ORR.

However, will the High Court rule in favour of the body, or could it open up a legal precedent that a private firm can successfully challenge the rules to protect their commercial interests?

With the government keen to see private industry take a bigger stake in funding the country’s future infrastructure needs, will we see more cases head to court in the future?

Or, will firms be more sceptical of the return on investment that can come from financing major projects in the future?

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