Opponents of the Government’s plans for a new high speed rail line were dealt a blow at the Conservative conference, when new Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin confirmed he was just as committed to the idea as his predecessors.
The line between London and Birmingham, which is now part of the West Coast Main Line, was opened in 1838 – just five years after planning began, he said.
Speaking to the Conservative conference, Mr McLoughlin said he planned to follow the example of our Victorian forefathers and “get cracking on High Speed Two”.
This is the line which will run first of all from London to Birmingham, with a second phase running from Birmingham in two directions, to Leeds and to Manchester.
But Mr McLoughlin also hinted at a phase three.
He said: “We’re launching a study on the way to get fast journeys further north still. With the aim of getting the journey from Scotland to London to under three hours.”
High speed rail is already due to reduce journey times between London and Scotland, because it will speed up the first half of the journey from London to Manchester.
But that only cuts the journey down from four and a half hours today, to three and a half hours once phase two is completed.
Mr McLoughlin’s comments suggested the Government is contemplating a phase three, with high speed rail extending northwards past Manchester. Tory officials said it was too soon to provide details.
The new transport secretary took on opponents of the project, saying: “I hear those voices who say High Speed Two is too costly. Who say we can muddle through. And yes, the easy option would be to do nothing. It always is.
“But my answer is that we can’t afford not to build it.
“Our competitors around the world are investing in the best transport. And we must too.
“My promise in return is that we’ll compensate those affected properly. And we’ll use the very best technology to limit the impact on homes and the countryside.
“No big infrastructure project is ever done without great controversy. But once they are built, people rely on them.”
Mr McLoughlin, a former miner from Cannock, Staffordshire, insisted he was a true “one nation” Tory, after Labour leader Ed Miliband claimed Labour was now the true “one nation” party at his own conference speech the previous week.
He said: “I’m the son of a miner and the grandson of a miner. I was born in Staffordshire and I went to work in the Staffordshire coalfield just up the road from here.
“And before I go on, I want to make one point clear. If you want to understand One Nation, Mr Miliband. I’ll show you One Nation, Mr Miliband. He is standing at this podium. I am a One Nation Tory.
“And it is this party over the generations that has given people opportunity from whatever their background.”
The speech was welcomed by Birmingham Chamber of Commerce. Chamber president Michael Ward said: “HS2 is worth £1.5 billion of additional investment and 22,000 jobs to the West Midlands so we must not waste a single day in delivering it. We also welcome the minister’s commitment to taking HS2 north and ensuring that HS2 delivers for UK plc.”