PASSENGERS will be offered the prospect of travelling from Yorkshire to Paris in three-and-a-half hours as the Government prepares to press ahead with a second high-speed railway line.
The controversial HS2 high-speed rail project was given the green light today, with the Government making concessions to appease those who are bitterly opposed to the £32.7 billion scheme.
Transport Secretary Justine Greening said HS2, which will run from London to Birmingham in its first phase, would mean more seats, better connections, new jobs and growth and prosperity for the entire country.
She announced extra tunnelling on the route to try to mitigate the effects of the scheme, saying she recognised that the project had “generated strong feelings”.
But those opposed to HS2, which will run through picturesque Tory heartlands, said there was no business or economic case for it and no money to pay for it.
And the Government said that due to the economic climate, the benefit-cost ratio of the project (including wider economic benefits) had reduced slightly - to between £1.80 to £2.50 benefits for every £1 spent, although the figure still remained “convincing”.
Running from a rebuilt Euston station in London to a new Birmingham City Centre station at Curzon Street, the first £16.4 billion phase of the project will be completed in 2026, with a hybrid bill being introduced in Parliament next year.
Travelling on 400-metre (1,312ft) trains capable of holding 1,100 customers, passengers will be able to travel from London to Birmingham in just 45 minutes.
There would be a Crossrail interchange station at Old Oak Common in west London and a second interchange station to the south east of Birmingham.
A direct link to HS1 (the London to Folkestone Channel Tunnel high-speed rail line) will be built in phase 1, but a spur linking to Heathrow airport would not be built until the second, north-of-Birmingham phase of the project.
The second phase will see lines built from Birmingham to Leeds and Manchester by 2033. A formal consultation on second phase routes will begin in early 2014 with a final route chosen by the end of 2014.
HS2 will mean substantial time savings between Britain’s cities, reducing a Birmingham to Leeds journey from two hours to just 57 minutes and a Manchester to London journey from two hours eight minutes to only one hour eight minutes.
Today’s announcement followed a consultation exercise in which the Government received nearly 55,000 responses.
Some Tory MPs, including Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan, as well as local residents and some local councils are bitterly opposed to HS2.
Mindful of this opposition, Ms Greening announced changes to the route today.
• A longer, continuous tunnel from Little Missenden to the M25 through the Chilterns;
• A new 2.75-mile bored tunnel along the Northolt Corridor to avoid major works to the Chilterns Line and impacts on local communities in the Ruislip area of north west London;
• A longer green tunnel past Chipping Warden and Aston Le Walls in Northamptonshire, and to curve the route to avoid a cluster of important heritage sites around Edgcote;
• A longer green tunnel to reduce impacts around Wendover in Buckinghamshire, and an extension to the green tunnel at South Heath in Buckinghamshire.
The changes also mean that “fewer than five properties” will be affected by high levels of noise.
Asked why changes had been made to the HS2 scheme, Prime Minister David Cameron’s official spokesman said: “We had a consultation and within that consultation some people expressed concerns and we have listened to those concerns.”
Mr Cameron has not had any meetings with Ms Gillan recently specifically to discuss her concerns about the plans, he said.
The spokesman added: “The point of this scheme is that for every pound spent, it generates £2 in benefits. This is vital to our efforts to rebalance the economy and tackle the problem of the north/south divide.”
The announcement and the changes to the route failed to appease Andy Jones, 60, whose home in Burton Green, Warwickshire, is about 90 yards from the proposed route.
He said his village regarded the announcement as being “day one of round two” in the fight against the line.
He went on: “The consultation was an utter sham from start to finish.”
Ms Greening said: “A new high-speed rail network will provide Britain with the additional train seats, connections and speed to stay ahead of the congestion challenge and help create jobs, growth and prosperity for the entire country.
“HS2 will link some of our greatest cities - and high-speed trains will connect with our existing railway lines to provide seamless journeys to destinations far beyond it. This is a truly British network that will serve far more than the cities directly on the line.”
She said it was not a decision she had taken lightly “or without great consideration of the impact on those who are affected by the route from London to Birmingham”.
She went on: “I took more time to make this decision in order to find additional mitigation which now means more than half the entire 140-mile line (from London to Birmingham) will be out of sight in tunnels or cuttings.
“I am certain this strikes the right balance between the reasonable concerns of people living on or near the line, who will be offered a generous compensation package, and the need to keep Britain moving.”
Network Rail and the Association of Tran Operating Companies welcomed today’s announcement, with both organisations reckoning that expanding existing rail routes was not enough to combat overcrowding.
Rail unions were also pleased with the go-ahead for the scheme.
But the Taxpayers’ Alliance and the Stop HS2 campaign both said the project was “a white elephant”, while the Institute of Economic Affairs said the scheme was “economically flawed”.
Jerry Marshall, chairman of Agahst (Action Groups Against High Speed Two), said HS2 was “a disaster waiting to happen”, but the British Chamber of Commerce said rail services would get worse without the new line and the CBI said today’s announcement was welcome.