THE Government could make a legal commitment to extend high-speed rail to Yorkshire before it starts building the first leg of the network from London to Birmingham.
Transport Secretary Philip Hammond revealed he has discussed the move because of the need to give "strong reassurance" to people in Yorkshire and the north-west that the project will not be halted when it reaches Birmingham.
It means the Bill which will go through Parliament approving the detail of the first leg of the route could also included "specific commitments" to extending it to Manchester and Leeds, although the precise routes of the second phase would have to be approved by MPs in a further Bill.
"Everyone who wishes this project well understands the need to give strong reassurance to those communities around Manchester, Leeds, South Yorkshire and the East Midlands that stand to benefit from the second phase," said Mr Hammond.
"It would help to allay concerns if, in some way, we could include in the first hybrid Bill specific commitments to Manchester and Leeds."
The move has been suggested amid concern from supporters of high-speed rail in the North that the costs and complexities of building the first phase of the 30bn network – which will link up to the Channel Tunnel link – will mean the extensions to Manchester and Leeds will either be delayed or abandoned.
The Government announced in October it was pressing ahead with the 250mph network, first proposed under Labour, which will branch into a "Y" shape, with a single line from London to the West Midlands before branching into two lines heading further north. Experts claim a fast link to Yorkshire would be worth billions of pounds to the region's economy as journey times to London were slashed to just over an hour.
This week Ministers announced alterations to the proposed London to Birmingham route after fierce protests in areas affected – many of which are represented by Tory MPs – although if the project were to be finally approved building on the Birmingham route would not start until 2015 at the earliest.
A link to Leeds – which would also include a stop in South Yorkshire – may not be completed until 2030 under the current plans, and Ministers hope to build that leg at the same time as a link between Birmingham and Manchester.
Mr Hammond said the network would be a "major deliverer of economic regeneration to Leeds" and would help the city to grow.
A consultation has now been launched into the detailed route proposal for the first phase, before Parliament debates a Hybrid Bill during which MPs would be able to object to particular parts of the route.
Detailed route designs for the branch through South Yorkshire to the centre of Leeds will be drawn up over the coming months.