The coalition Government remains determined to push ahead with a £34 billion High Speed Rail route linking London and Birmingham and is willing to face down Conservative MPs who oppose the project on cost grounds and because of the harm it will inflict the countryside.
Transport Secretary Philip Hammond told a conference of business leaders at the NEC he “didn’t anticipate” any problems getting an HS2 bill through Parliament since the scheme has all-party backing and the Prime Minister is its most prominent supporter.
However, he urged the Birmingham business community not to take success for granted and to continue to make a powerful case for the economic benefits the biggest investment in railways for a century would bring to the West Midlands.
Mr Hammond said: “Opponents of HS2 are organised and determined and well financed.
“They will make their case against the project in spades. It is essential that those who see power of HS2 to deliver economic change speak up loudly and clearly in favour. If they do not, the argument could be lost by default.”
Sixty action groups opposed to the scheme have already been formed along the £17 billion first-phase route between London Euston and Birmingham Eastside, which passes through 16 Conservative-held constituencies in Warwickshire, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire.
MPs, furious at the impact on green belt and the Chiltern Hills, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, have been urging the Government to look at other options including improving the existing West Coast Main Line from Birmingham to Euston via Coventry and Milton Keynes.
Mr Hammond accused his opponents of standing in the way of progress. He said: “In the 1830s land owners fought tooth and nail against railways they feared would destroy their livelihoods and kill their animals. And in the 1960s land owners and communities fought against the motorways, but they are an essential part of our national infrastructure.
“I am afraid we have to go through that process again with HS2 and offer the fairest compensation we can to those affected by the railway.”
The earliest that HS2 could be up and running is 2026 and the service will cut journey times between Birmingham and London from 85 minutes to 49 minutes, or 40 minutes for non-stop trains.
With a new station serving Birmingham Airport and the NEC, it is envisaged that the track will split with a spur running to a station at Curzon Street in Birmingham city centre, enabling a public transport hub to be created connecting Moor Street and New Street stations with Metro and bus services. The main HS2 route will carry on in two directions, to Manchester and the North-west and Leeds and the North-east.
Mr Hammond said it would be more expensive to improve the West Coast Main Line by providing additional tracks, and to do so would involve demolishing thousands more homes and businesses than HS2.
Not only would HS2 provide faster services between the West Midlands and London, it would release capacity to run more local passenger and freight services on the West Coast Main Line while reducing the need for flights from Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham to London, he claimed.
Mr Hammond insisted the project should be seen primarily as economic regeneration and would do more to close the north-south wealth gap.
He tackled head-on cost issues, stating that no roads or railways would have been built if financial profit was the only motive.
He added: “Things that generate economic benefits but no profits have to be built or at least facilitated by the public sector. We have to look at the overall costs to society against the economic benefits of building this railway.”
Promising to take a personal interest in getting the best compensation for people whose properties and businesses lie on or close to the proposed route, Mr Hammond added: “I am a great lover of the British countryside and I do not take the environmental impact that HS2 will have lightly. We will do everything we can to mitigate.”
Gerry Marshall, chairman of HS2 opposition groups, described the HS2 business case as “fairly dodgy” and warned the faster trains would “suck the lifeblood out of this region” because more people would use the service to travel to jobs in London and the South-east.
But Mr Hammond said: “I simply don’t accept this. What a hopeless situation we are in if every city outside London puts forward an argument that better transport links will only suck the lifeblood out of it and drag it to London.”