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Green light for high-speed rail stalls car lobby

Go-ahead for Britain's first major railway project for more than a century will be matched by retreat on promises to motorists

The Government is to end the truce in the "war on the motorist", as Justine Greening, the Secretary of State for Transport, prepares to clear the way for Britain's first new mainline railway for more than a century.

Ms Greening will this week let the super-fast train take the strain, backing a 109-mile line between London and Birmingham, and future extensions to Leeds and Manchester. In three decades, the high-speed line is expected to replace 6 million flights and 9 million road trips as travellers switch to rail.

And in a move likely to delight environmentalists and safety campaigners, populist policies to raise the national road speed limit to 80mph and axe annual MOTs are to be watered down, The Independent on Sunday understands, risking the wrath of the motoring lobby.

It marks a bold pro-rail, anti-car stance from the newest Cabinet minister which could define the coalition's transport policy until the general election. On Tuesday, Ms Greening will make her first major announcement since her promotion to the Cabinet last October, when she will back the High Speed Rail (HS2) route.

From 2026, trains carrying 1,000 passengers will hurtle through the countryside at up to 250mph, shaving half an hour off journey times and easing pressure on overcrowded routes. It will be the first major new railway line in Britain since the Great Central Main Line opened in 1899. Supporters say it will add 290,000 extra seats to and from the North each weekday, create a million jobs outside London and erode the North-South divide. Opponents dismiss HS2 as a £32bn white elephant that will not bring major environmental benefits, threatens stately homes and cherished tranquillity, and carving up farmland. This would be to tackle a capacity problem which, they say, doesn't exist or could be solved by modernising the existing network.

David Cameron has said privately "we have to build it", and sees it as key to hopes of a Tory revival in the Midlands and beyond. But the business case, time savings, benefits for the North and environmental mitigation have all been contested. The project has divided environmentalists, business groups and transport experts and pitted the PM against several Tory MPs who fear the impact on their constituencies. Even the Queen is said to have raised doubts, fearing the super-fast trains will startle her horses at Stoneleigh Park in Warwickshire.

"The status quo is not an option," said a government source. "You could build a motorway or a classic rail line, but that would go through people's gardens as well, so you get all the opposition and none of the benefits of high-speed rail. Sometimes you just have to do things."

Labour, which first proposed HS2 when in power, will drop its opposition to the Government's route. Maria Eagle, the shadow Transport secretary, had backed an alternative route, but said the project would "now be taken forward on a cross-party basis to give it the certainty a major project of this kind needs".

Ms Greening will pledge to carry out an environmental impact assessment which will be subject to consultation later. Joe Rukin, campaign co-ordinator for No to HS2 said: "If she was going to assess this on environmental grounds, she wouldn't proceed. The country cannot afford this. You can deliver more benefits to more people more quickly and for less by investing in the current rail infrastructure, and that's what the Government should do."

Fiona Howie of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, said her organisation supported the principle of investing in rail rather than new roads or promoting air travel but she is "concerned".

"If HS2 is taken forward it must be designed and routed carefully to minimise its impact on our countryside," she said.

Ms Greening's pro-train, anti-car stand will delight many environmentalists and her Liberal Democrat coalition colleagues, but risks angering Tory traditionalists who backed her predecessor, Philip Hammond, who said in May 2010: "We will end the war on motorists."

In October, Mr Hammond announced plans to increase the speed limit for motorways in England and Wales from 70mph to 80mph, boasting it would "generate economic benefits of hundreds of millions of pounds through shorter journey times". A consultation was due late last year, but The Independent on Sunday understands Ms Greening will be "more nuanced". "You won't hear her using that language," said a Department for Transport source.

The DfT suggests half of today's drivers flout the 70mph limit, but there is concern that increasing it to 80mph could see more motorists driving at 85-90mph. Safety campaigners oppose the change. Green groups say driving 10mph faster uses 20 per cent more fuel and produces 20 per cent more CO2. Chris Huhne, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, raised concerns about the environmental impact.

A separate Hammond plan to reduce the frequency of MoT tests will also be diluted after outspoken opposition from the RAC, the AA and safety groups. Cars which are more than three years old need an annual MoT, but a consultation is looking at carrying out the test only every other year.