High-speed rail 'vital' for North West, says minister

Transport minister Theresa Villiers said it was vital that the line reached the North West

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A high-speed rail link between London and Manchester is vital to help boost the North West economy, transport minister Theresa Villiers has said.

She told business leaders in Manchester the proposed £32bn route was a "once-in-a-generation opportunity".

Critics argue the scheme is a waste of money, which would be better spent on updating the West Coast mainline.

But Ms Villiers told the BBC the line would generate far greater economic benefits than it would cost to build.

A public consultation on phase one of plans for the high-speed line (HS2), between London and Birmingham, is currently under way.

The next phase of the plan, which is being backed by the government, involves extending the line in a "Y" shape to Manchester and Leeds, cutting journey times between the two cities and the capital to about 80 minutes.

Outlining the government's case, Conservative MP Ms Villiers said: "We think it's vital we start having much more geographical balance in this country to provide Manchester and the North West with infrastructure it needs to flourish and close that prosperity gap with London and the South East.

Detail from high speed rail map

See maps of the route at the DfT website

"Experience around the rest of Europe shows that regional cities such as Manchester can benefit hugely from top-class, high-speed connection to capital cities.

"I think this is our once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform the economic geography of this country and really start to make a significant difference in closing the economic gap between north and south."

Mrs Villiers said the West Coast Mainline was expected to reach capacity in the next 15 years, making HS2 a "desperately needed" project.

"If we don't do something now the crowding problems are going to intensify," she added.

"We need to find a new way to provide efficient, high-quality, high-speed travel between our cities and building a high-speed rail line is the best and most sustainable way to do that."

'Speed isn't green'

One of the groups opposing the line, the HS2 Action Alliance, highlighted a report by the government's own environment watchdog - the Sustainable Development Commission - which branded the link as a "vanity project".

Spokesman Jerry Marshall said: "The Department for Transport's own figures on jobs say that 73% of the 30,000 regeneration jobs that they expect to be created will actually be in London.

"One of the flaws in the business plan is they are comparing projected high-speed times with current times... Sir Richard Branson reckons he can get Virgin Trains to Birmingham in an hour by the time HS2 opens.

"So that will only be 11 minutes slower than HS2.

"These trains require at least 50% more energy than classic trains, so in terms of sustainability it's not the answer - speed isn't green.

"In terms of capacity it's not the answer and there's no evidence to suggest it will improve the north-south divide because most of the jobs will be in London - so she [Theresa Villiers] is wrong."

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