Transport Secretary Philip Hammond has issued a rallying call for the business community to get behind plans for a £17 billion High Speed rail link between London and Birmingham, which he said would do more to tackle the north-south wealth gap than decades of Government intervention.
Mr Hammond presented HS2 – estimated to boost the West Midlands economy by £2.5 billion and create 10,000 construction jobs – as a once in a lifetime opportunity to drive forward economic regeneration and create wealth.
The proposed line, with stations close to Heathrow and Birmingham Airport, will have a spur track to take 250mph trains into a new Birmingham city centre station at Eastside.
Non-stop journeys will take 40 minutes – less than half the time of current trips between London and Birmingham on the West Coast Main Line.
A second phase of HS2 envisages two lines splitting north of Birmingham, one taking trains to Manchester and the other serving Leeds.
The Government will launch a formal consultation into the proposal shortly, but Ministers have already been forced on to the back foot by determined opposition from Conservative MPs representing 16 constituencies in Warwickshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire, where the track will carve through green belt and areas of outstanding natural beauty.
Sixty action groups opposing HS2 have already been formed along the proposed route, which also runs through a business park owned by prominent Tory party backer Robert Edmiston.
Speaking to a business conference at the NEC, Mr Hammond accepted that he had a fight on his hands although both sides of the coalition Government intended to press ahead with what they saw as a project of national importance.
He 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.”
Dealing with questions about the cost of the project at a time of severe public spending cutbacks, Mr Hammond said: “To those who ask how Britain can afford to invest in a project of this scale, I say that we cannot afford not to invest in our future.
“This is a project that could transform the social and environmental geography of Britain and transform the role of cities like Birmingham, and shift demand from air to rail.
“This is an opportunity to show some leadership and go with the big transformational infrastructure projects to deliver change the country needs.”
Gerry Marshall, chairman of the HS2 opposition groups, claimed the project was based on “dodgy assumptions” in its business case. The line would “suck the life blood” out of Birmingham because most people would use high speed trains to travel from the West Midlands to work in London, turning the region into little more than a dormitory town for the South-east.