Rail line to link London and Manchester in 90 minutes

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A high-speed rail link that could take passengers from London to Manchester in less than 90 minutes - a reduction of at least 50 minutes - was in prospect after the Government revealed it is to undertake a feasibility study of the project.

Alistair Darling, the Secretary of State for Transport, said a super-fast service between the north and south of the country would be considered as part of a plan to increase the capacity of the rail network. It is expected that such a route would be similar to the Channel Tunnel rail link with trains reaching 186mph, compared with the 125mph maximum achieved by existing inter-city express services.

The Government had shelved the idea of such a link but is now resurrecting the proposals. Mr Darling said previous plans for the project drawn up by the Strategic Rail Authority had not been "robust" in terms of costs.

Addressing a Future of Rail conference, attended by industry leaders yesterday, he said: "In the past few years, we have concentrated on fixing the problems on the existing network and there are still problems to be solved. But now we also have to look to the future. We've done it in aviation. We've done it for roads, now we need to do it for rail. We need to raise our eyes and look to the future."

The Government needed to decide whether the extra capacity required on the rail network over the next 10 to 20 years could be achieved by upgrading existing lines or by building new railways, he said.

A high-speed north-south link would be likely to link up with the new London terminus of the Channel Tunnel rail link at St Pancras - set for completion in 2007. An initial route could link London and Manchester, which currently takes about two hours and 20 minutes, but it could then be extended northwards to Scotland.

Passengers' representatives point out such high-speed travel would also have to be affordable. Ministers are planning to charge commuters up to 35 per cent more for travelling on super-fast services using the Channel Tunnel rail link from Kent to London.

In his address to the conference, Mr Darling took a sideswipe at the London-Glasgow services provided by Virgin's new Pendolino "tilting" trains. He said such innovations needed to deliver results fast.

He added: "Passengers don't care about process. They see the investment that has gone, for example, into the west coast main line - but frankly they will only care if they see the benefits of that investment - delays being reduced and the trains running on time.

"More needs to be done. It is not rocket science but it is important to focus on the details and get them right."

Pendolinos are breaking down every 2,000 miles whereas engineers at Alstom, the manufacturers of the trains, expected they would last 3,000 miles before needing attention in the early stages of their introduction.

Mr Darling's speech came a year after he announced a major review of the structure of Britain's railways to improve performance, increase investment and improve safety.

He said: "I am optimistic about the future of the railways in this country. More importantly so too is the industry. But there is a lot more to do."

He said it was vital Network Rail worked more closely with train operators to deliver a more reliable service for passengers. That was already being achieved by setting up joint control centres, he added.

He said by working together they had already reduced the number of disruptions during the autumn weather last year.

Mr Darling said he supported plans to reform the structure of the Rail Passengers Council which he said would give passengers a stronger voice.