Mr Grayling says trains running on the proposed Northern Powerhouse Rail, also known as HS3, will not travel at 250mph from east to west “because that’s not what that needs”.
He told a London newspaper that the key route between Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and other major northern cities, the centrepiece of plans to revolutionise transport in the region, “is more likely to be 125mph railway because of the distances”.
Transport for the North, which set out its 30-year vision earlier this year, says a high speed rail line between Leeds and Manchester, stopping at Bradford, will speed up journey times from 49 minutes to 30, and mean trips from Sheffield to Leeds will take 26 minutes compared with the current 41.
And responding to the comments by Mr Grayling, a spokeswoman for the strategic transport body said these journey times would be achievable if trains only go at 125mph. She said the average speed between Leeds and Manchester is currently 50mph.
She said: “We expect trains running on Northern Powerhouse Rail to be capable of running at speeds of at least 125mph and this was factored in when we agreed the initial aspirational journey times for the network and represents a significant and transformational increase over the speeds currently being achieved by trains running east to west on rail lines in the North today.
“Our focus for Northern Powerhouse Rail remains on developing an achievable rolling programme of investment for Northern Powerhouse Rail, which will transform rail links between the major economic centres of the North and in doing so transform the way people live and work and help rebalance the UK economy.’
In his interview with The Times, Mr Grayling said the £56bn HS2 line between London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds, which will carry 250mph trains, would create extra space for freight and commuter trains on existing lines.
MPs, civic leaders and company bosses in the North claim delivering Northern Powerhouse Rail at the same time as HS2 would be a major step to narrowing the North-South divide, opening up much larger potential labour markets for businesses and enhanced leisure and social activities for families.
Henri Murison, director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, which represents business and civic leaders, said: “As an organisation, Northern Powerhouse Partnership firmly believe that government must commit to providing a high-speed Northern Powerhouse Rail network capable of delivering transformational journey times and capacity for the commuters and families of the North.
“Northern Powerhouse Rail will be a mix of new lines, improvements to the existing network and linking up HS2 with east-west services.
“Some parts of the network may not reach the high-speeds HS2 will achieve because of the distances involved – Leeds to Manchester is a distance about the length of the Central Line – but cutting the journey times between those two cities to under 30 minutes will be a game-changer for productivity across the North.
“We want the Secretary of State to commit to delivering NPR at the same time as HS2, by 2032/3 so that children born last year can access the network to access further education or career opportunities, and to build the upgraded link to HS2 south from York to allow these upgrades in coming years to deliver the final Northern Powerhouse Rail requirements between York and Leeds.”
A Department for Transport spokesman said: “Transport for the North is developing proposals for Northern Powerhouse Rail to operate between Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, Newcastle and Hull.
“Northern Powerhouse Rail will significantly improve journeys but speeds will not need to reach 250mph to meet Transport for the North’s aspirations for journey times. As the distances between proposed stations are relatively short there is no need to run trains at this speed.
“This is not a question of infrastructure. Parts of Northern Powerhouse Rail will run on HS2 lines, the very latest technology and fastest lines in the UK.
“This Government is committed to NPR and has given Transport for the North £60 million to develop proposals for the scheme, alongside investing £300 million to ensure HS2 can accommodate future NPR services.”