Journey times between Birmingham and London will be cut to “well under an hour” with direct links to Heathrow and the Channel Tunnel, under Government plans for a new high-speed rail line.
The ambitious scheme, which could cost up to £30 billion, is part of a package of transport proposals including a new runway at Heathrow Airport and scrapping plans for extra lanes on the M6 between Birmingham and London.
Transport Secretary Geoff Hoon told the House of Commons he saw “a strong case” for a line offering speeds of up to 200 mph, running initially from London to Birmingham and linked to a new Heathrow International railway station, which could later be extended to the north of England and Scotland.
It marked a major shift from the position of three years ago, when a Government study conducted by former British Airways chief executive Sir Rod Eddington concluded that high-speed rail was too expensive and would do little to help the environment.
The Government will create a company called High Speed 2, chaired by former civil servant Sir David Rowlands, to develop proposals for a new line running between Birmingham and the West Midlands.
It will consider the case for linking the new line to the Channel Tunnel service, also known as High Speed 1, which runs from St Pancras to the tunnel entrance in Kent. This would create a faster service from the Midlands and the North to Continental Europe.
A study published by the Department for Transport suggested services could run at up to 200mph. It warned that new rail links between Birmingham and London were needed because the West Coast Main Line, which also runs between the West Midlands and the capital, will become overloaded south of Rugby by about 2025.
Sir David’s inquiry is due to draw up recommendations on the route a high-speed line would follow and how it should be funded by the end of the year. Ministers will make a decision based on its findings, which will go out to consultation. Centro, the West Midlands’ transport authority, welcomed the announcement. Chief executive Geoff Inskip said: “Work done last year showed the benefits of such a link to the region’s economy would be in excess of £10 billion.
“The connection into Heathrow and London, together with the expansion of the runway at Birmingham International, would bring Europe that much closer to the West Midlands and greatly increase our links to the world.”
Mr Hoon also revealed that the Government had abandoned plans to expand the M6 between Birmingham and Manchester in favour of allowing drivers to use the hard shoulder instead.
In 2002, the DoT announced plans to widen the M6 to eight lanes between Junction 11A at Cannock and Junction 19, south of Manchester, to cut congestion. But Mr Hoon said trials on the M42 had shown that opening hard shoulders could lead to faster journeys and less congestion, “all delivered at a lower cost than a more conventional road-widening scheme.”