Philip Hammond: Have the last word on high speed future

FIVE months ago, the Government launched a public consultation on HS2 – a new national high speed rail network that will transform connections between Yorkshire and the rest of the country.

Today, after one of the largest and most wide-ranging public engagement exercises ever undertaken, that consultation comes to an end.

It is the culmination of a massive programme of roadshows, exhibitions, conferences and seminars which have attracted huge interest – and sparked vigorous debate – up and down the country. Submissions and contributions to the consultation continue to arrive from passengers, local communities, businesses, academics, local authorities, environmental groups and the railway industry.

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But I want to make one last appeal to the people and businesses of Yorkshire for contributions before this afternoon’s deadline. Yorkshire would be among the big winners from high speed rail.

For example, journey times from Leeds to Central London would be slashed from 140 minutes to just 80 minutes. And services from Leeds to Birmingham would take just over an hour – down from two hours today.

Sheffield would also benefit significantly from the new network, with high speed links to central London in just an hour and a quarter.

But just as important, high speed rail would also help tackle the growing capacity problems on our railway by relieving pressure on existing, overstretched lines like East Coast. At least 14 services an hour would be added on the North-South high speed route, each carrying up to 1,100 passengers.

Across the country, the new network would generate economic benefits of around £44bn over 60 years, and it would deliver a massive regional economic boost to Leeds and Yorkshire. That is why so many business and civic leaders here have already backed our plans. For far too long transport planners in Britain have failed to look beyond the short term, and consequently have not invested in our long-term future. We must not make the same mistake.

Over the past two decades, rail passenger numbers have soared. Between 1994/5 and 2009/10, total passenger miles on the network rose from 18 billion to almost 32 billion. Long distance services on the East Coast Main Line have become increasingly crowded, as many rail users in Yorkshire will have experienced.

Although numbers of standing passengers are highest between London and Peterborough, some of the busiest East Coast services regularly carry standing passengers as far as York or Leeds. And while we continue to make incremental improvements to the network by modernising rolling stock and finding ways to manage the system more efficiently, the fundamental problem remains: we cannot meet the needs of a 21st century market with an ageing, 19th century railway.

Without a substantial increase in transport capacity on inter-city routes, severe overcrowding would inevitably spread, and reliability would deteriorate. More and more passengers and freight would be forced on to congested roads and motorways.

Failure to grasp this opportunity would be a dereliction of our duty to boost Britain’s long-term economic prospects. We need a more balanced economy, with cities in the Midlands and the North able to compete more effectively in the global marketplace.

HS2 would help tackle the imbalance between London and the rest of the country, which is why so many businesses and local authorities in the north back it. It would allow businesses in Yorkshire to exploit new markets, access new customers, and attract new investment. And it would widen opportunities for the people of Yorkshire – providing improved accessibility to jobs and services.

Of course, we recognise the concerns of communities living near the proposed route. We have set out a number of measures that will help minimise the impact of the line on the communities it passes through.

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.

The anti-HS2 lobby is well organised and vocal. But this consultation is not just about the opinions of those in the South. It is about getting a fair and representative spread of views from people across the whole of the UK.

The coalition was elected to govern in the long-term national interest, and I believe that by investing in high speed rail, we can tackle the North-South economic divide more effectively than decades of regional policy has done.

I believe that HS2 offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform Britain’s transport infrastructure, and invest in the future of Yorkshire. This is your last chance to ensure your voice is heard in the consultation.

I urge everyone in Leeds, Sheffield, and across Yorkshire, who has not already contributed to click on the HS2 website (highspeedrail.dft.gov.uk) and have your say before the end of today.

Philip Hammond MP is the Secretary of State for Transport.