Embattled ministers planning a £17.5 billion high speed rail link from London to Birmingham have been thrown a lifeline by business leaders who urged the Government to press ahead with the scheme.
The heads of BAE Systems, Waitrose and manufacturing giant Siemens have written an open letter insisting: “A high-speed rail link will give the economy a much needed boost, particularly in the North and Midlands”.
Lord Jones of Birmingham, the former head of the CBI, has also signed the letter, along with David Eastwood, the vice-chancellor of the University of Birmingham, and leading figures from the city’s business community including Jerry Blackett, chief executive of Birmingham Chamber of Commerce, Paul Thandi, chief executive of the NEC Group, and Paul Kehoe, chief executive of Birmingham Airport.
The letter comes as the Government prepares to launch a formal consultation on the project next week.
This will include the results of a study into the effect of a new rail line on homes and businesses along the proposed route, which found that up to 4,860 homes will experience additional noise.
Ministers are facing opposition from residents’ groups and MPs in constituencies affected by the line, many of them Tory-held.
MPs including Dan Byles (Con North Warwickshire) and Chris White (Con Warwick & Leamington) are campaigning against the scheme, and Michael Fabricant (Con Lichfield) has also expressed doubts.
Coventry City Council is opposing high speed rail on the grounds that it will benefit Birmingham’s economy but may actually take business away from surrounding towns and cities.
And Labour has apparently ended the cross-party consensus in favour of high speed rail after Shadow Transport Secretary Maria Eagle said the party would consider whether it was affordable.
Birmingham City Council and the city’s MPs are firmly in favour of the scheme.
But Transport Minister Norman Baker warned supporters of the rail scheme that the Government needed their vocal support, when he spoke to West Midlands business leaders and transport chiefs at a reception organised by Centro, the regional passenger transport authority, in the House of Commons last month.
The letter adds: “Not only will a high-speed rail link create capacity and reduce journey times, it will also improve connections between airports, help commuter services and free up space on existing lines to carry more freight.
“All this will provide significant help for British business and attract additional investment.”
Lizzy Williams, chairman of campaign group STOP HS2, said: “To continue spending on this project when essential services are being cut when there is simply no business case or no environmental case is quite frankly immoral.”
Under the plans, a new station will be built in Birmingham city centre at Fazeley Street.
A second new station will also be built near the National Exhibition Centre, serving the NEC and Birmingham Airport.
The service will initially run from London to Birmingham and is due to be opened in 2026, but it will then be extended with two lines running from the Midlands to the North-east and North-west.