The HS2 high speed rail link between Birmingham and London will prove pivotal in rebalancing the UK economy in favour of the regions, according to the project's new chairman.
Sir David Higgins also pledged to work to deliver some of the benefits to the Midlands and the north as quickly as possible.
Sir David, who has been chief executive of Network Rail since 2011, visited Birmingham a week-and-a-half after being appointed to the £600,000 role, to attend a meeting of council leaders from the UK’s Core Cities taking place at the Library of Birmingham.
He told the Birmingham Post the project was about more than just faster train times and would serve as the foundation of an integrated public transport infrastructure that will benefit Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds, as well as many other cities.
He said: “HS2 is at an interesting stage now, but the question is how do you deliver it and how do you bring the benefits earlier?
“How do we integrate it, particularly for the Midlands? You only get the benefit of the HS2 spend if it is part of a broader transport strategy.
“If you look at money spent on public transport a lot is skewed towards London. It is a vicious cycle and we need to rebalance the economy otherwise we will never break that cycle.
“Business is too concentrated on London, you have to redistribute that business further north.
“HS2 will transform not just Birmingham but how cities in the north talk to each other.”
If the HS2 hybrid Bill is passed the new line will link Birmingham and London by 2026, with tracks to Leeds and Manchester built in a second phase, to be completed by 2032-33.
Sir David said he believed work could progress faster than anticipated, particularly as the more complex logistical problems affected the southern end of the line, meaning work on the Midland end could proceed at a faster pace.
He also said he would draw on his experience as chief executive of the London 2012 Summer Olympics Delivery Authority.
He said: “The Olympics was fabulous to work on. It was a very creative time, particularly the first few months of delivering such a major development.
“HS2 is completely different but I am very passionate about it. It is so crucial to the future long-term prosperity of the country.”
Asked whether he felt the arguments over whether HS2 should happen had been won, Sir David said he felt it was moving in the right direction but admitted there was still some way to go.
“Political momentum is building for cross-party support but we can never be complacent and the next 12 months will be crucial,” he said.
“The business case is getting clearer and the capacity of the rail network really is at the limit.
“This is a step change. When you think about capacity we have just been working on incremental change and trying to patch up a Victorian network.
“Fifty per cent of 35,000 bridges on the national rail network are over 100 years old and we have 170-year old cuttings and embankments.”
One of the criticisms levelled at HS2 is the estimated cost, which currently stands at £43 billion and Sir David said a review taking place over the next six weeks would examine that.
He also stressed the benefits for Birmingham as the heart of the network and the jobs it would bring, though would not be drawn on whether a new technical college to help plug the engineering skills gap planned as part of the scheme would be based in the city.
He said: “HS2 will be centred and controlled out of Birmingham, it will be the centre of the rail network and the centre of rail infrastructure. These are high-tech facilities and very hi-tech jobs.”
Sir Albert Bore, the leader of Birmingham City Council, echoed Sir David’s belief HS2 will help rebalance the economy.
He said: “The core cities are fully behind HS2, from Bristol in the south to Newcastle in the north because HS2 is going to rebalance the economy of the UK.
“No doubt the will be some who will try and scupper the Bill but the arguments in favour of HS2, the economic arguments and connectivity issues are now coming to the fore. We are starting to win the arguments and the debates and that will help HS2 get the legislation through its parliamentary processes.
“You can’t under-estimate the benefits of HS2 to Birmingham and the greater Birmingham region.”
Sir Albert said he was also hopeful the new technical college planned as part of the project would come to Birmingham.
“HS2 have agreed they are going to put an educational training college in place,” he said. “We have argued it should be in Washwood Heath where the hub will be.”