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The proposed high speed rail network on which we are currently consulting is not merely a blueprint for a new national railway, with state of the art trains speeding large numbers of passengers in comfort between our largest cities It is also a vision for the future of inter-city travel in the 21st century; and an investment in infrastructure to deliver the long-term growth, jobs and prosperity that Britain needs if we are to retain our place in the world's economic premier league.

Our railways are a wonderful legacy left to us by the Victorians, but as many regular rail travellers will know, the network is becoming increasingly crowded. Between 1994 and 2009, the number of miles travelled by rail passengers in Britain soared - from 18 billion to 32 billion - and demand is predicted to continue rising.

The price we will pay if we fail to prepare for rising demand on our busiest lines is increasingly severe overcrowding throughout the day, and deteriorating reliability of services. More passengers would be forced onto short-haul air services or onto the road network, generating ever-rising levels of carbon. Inter-city travel in Britain would become increasingly slow and unreliable, undermining the economies of our major cities and regions.

The Government is taking action by investing heavily in new trains and longer platforms, and making incremental improvements to the network. But these will not give us the long term solution that we need to satisfy the demands of an increasingly prosperous population. Instead, we need to build new infrastructure linking the North and South.

Fundamentally we have two choices: a new conventional railway line, or a new high speed rail line. After analysing all the options, we have concluded that high speed is the only effective, sustainable answer to our inter-city transport challenges.

Our experts estimate that a new conventional line - while costing around 90% as much as an equivalent high speed line - would be 33% less beneficial. And the lessons from abroad are equally clear. Countries across the developed world are pressing ahead with ambitious plans for high speed rail. From France to China, high speed is transforming journey times, capacity, reliability and comfort for passengers - and delivering huge economic benefits. Britain simply cannot afford to be left behind.

HS2 would provide vital additional capacity to cater for the fast-growing inter-city rail market.  It would provide new infrastructure designed specifically to carry longer and larger trains than our existing network.  And by allowing fast inter-city services to be separated from slower commuter and regional trains, it would enable capacity to be better used, and improve reliability.

Moving many intercity services to HS2 would also allow a complete renaissance of services on the existing, overloaded rail network. Space would be opened up on West Coast, East Coast, and Midland Main Lines for more commuter, regional and freight services.

HS2 would also slash travel times between our cities and radically improve connectivity between and within our regions.

Birmingham would be just 49 minutes away from London - down from one hour 24 minutes today. The journey from London to Leeds would be reduced from 2 hours 20 minutes to 80 minutes. And high speed trains from the capital would reach Manchester in one hour 13 minutes - instead of 2 hours 8 minutes today.

Links from HS2 onto both the West Coast and East Coast mainlines would enable high speed services to reach other destinations - like Newcastle, Liverpool, Glasgow and Edinburgh - by through running onto the existing network.

Access to international markets would also be transformed by linking high speed with Heathrow Airport and the Channel Tunnel. By providing a viable rail alternative to domestic flights and road transport, high speed could release capacity at our airports, and on our strategic road network.

A high speed network in Britain has the potential to generate economic benefits of around £44 billion over 60 years. The first phase alone would create more than 40,000 jobs and support economic regeneration in our great cities which would generate many thousands more.

For too long the UK has suffered from a north-south divide - an economic imbalance which prevents two thirds of the country from realising its full potential. We are determined to bridge that gap, and we see high speed rail as essential to our success. For the first time, high speed rail would deliver fast and efficient services between cities in the North and the Midlands, allowing them to increasingly operate as a single economic area.

These are just some of the reasons why businesses leaders up and down the country are supporting our proposals.

Of course I understand that communities who live near to the route of the proposed line will be concerned about the perceived impact it will have on their lives. That is why I have personally reviewed every mile of the route and have altered around half of it.

In the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, for example, we have made sure that all but 1.2 miles of the line would be in tunnel, cutting, or close to the A413 road corridor. We expect to plant two million trees along the route from London to Birmingham.

For those who, despite our best efforts at mitigation, are still negatively affected, we are consulting on options for an extra-statutory scheme, offering greater protection than the statutory compensation scheme. In the meantime, we are already operating an Exceptional Hardship Scheme for homeowners who need to relocate urgently, and whose property values have been affected by the published route proposal.

So we are listening to everyone's views, and we are taking them extremely seriously. No final decisions will be taken until everyone has had the chance to contribute. After those contributions have all been analysed, we will publish our response, setting out our proposed way forward in December this year.

How often in the past has Britain baulked at big decisions, while other countries modernise their infrastructure? We have before us a once in a lifetime opportunity to reshape our economic geography and secure our future. This time, let's take it - and seize the prize.

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Written by Philip Hammond MP   
Thursday, 07 July 2011 12:00


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