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Fears of Tory rebellion over high-speed rail

Ministers announced a series of changes yesterday to plans for a £12bn high-speed rail link from London to Birmingham in an effort to avert a Conservative rebellion against the scheme.

The connection, to be built between 2016 and 2026, will cut the journey time between the two cities to less than 50 minutes. A second spur would eventually link Birmingham to Manchester and Leeds by the 2030s.

The proposed scheme has provoked fury among Tory MPs with constituencies along the proposed route. Critics include Cheryl Gillan, the Welsh Secretary, and David Lidington, the Europe minister, as well as John Bercow, the Commons Speaker.

Philip Hammond, the Transport Secretary, insisted there was no prospect of the plans being dropped. "It is my view that a high-speed rail network would deliver a transformational change to the way Britain works and competes in the 21st century," he said. "It will allow the economies of the Midlands and the North to benefit much more directly from the economic engine of London."

But he promised that every effort would be made to disguise the track from residents in London, the Home Counties and the South Midlands. He told MPs: "Where we cannot hide it, we will ensure it is architecturally designed and something that people are pleased to look at, not a British Rail eyesore."

Amendments to the route envisaged by the previous government included deeper tunnels and cuttings and moving it away from houses and historic sites. Consultation on the plans will begin in February.

Mr Hammond said: "I am confident solutions have now been found which can significantly mitigate the impacts of the railway at local level." But he acknowledged that some property values along the route would fall and announced his officials were preparing a compensation scheme.

Maria Eagle, the shadow Transport Secretary, said: "Your party's support for high-speed rail is a figleaf to disguise the fact that you've got no strategy whatsoever for investment, jobs or growth in the North."

The former Labour minister Frank Dobson warned against the demolition of 350 flats in his Holborn and St Pancras constituency. He said: "You really ought to go back to the drawing board."

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