Transport Secretary Philip Hammond today launched a consultation on Government plans to "redraw" Britain's economic map by building a £32 billion high-speed rail network.
Announcing the five-month consultation into the proposals for the HS2 line, initially linking London with Birmingham, Mr Hammond said the country faced a "once in a lifetime" opportunity to create new jobs and prosperity.
Speaking at Birmingham's International Convention Centre, the minister claimed the controversial project would deliver £44 billion of benefits to the UK economy.
Urging all interested parties to have their say on the plans, which would eventually link the Midlands with the North of England, Mr Hammond said: "This will be one of the most extensive and potentially far-reaching government consultations in history."
It is envisaged that 14 trains or more an hour will run on the HS2 high-speed rail project, each with up to 1,100 seats. The new HSR network could shift as many as six million air trips and nine million road trips a year to rail.
The Government argues that with long-distance services transferred to the new high-speed network, large amounts of space would be freed up on the West Coast, East Coast and Midland Main Lines, allowing for an expansion of commuter, regional and freight services on these lines.
Subject to the outcome of the consultation, the Government intends to secure powers to deliver each phase of its proposed HSR network by means of the hybrid bill process.
Construction of any new network would be expected to begin early in the next Parliament, with the line to the West Midlands completed by 2026 and the legs to Manchester and Leeds finished in 2032-2033.
Last week almost 70 top bosses, including CBI director-general John Cridland and former British Airways chief executive Willie Walsh, gave their backing for HS2.
But Lizzie Williams, chairman of the Stop HS2 group, believes the project is "a complete waste of taxpayers' money when we can least afford it".
Network Rail (NR) said HS2 would be "a hugely significant enhancement to the national rail network and will unlock tremendous capacity to tackle, what will be by 2024, critical overcrowding on the West Coast Main Line".
Michael Roberts, chief executive of the Association of Train Operating Companies said a new HSR line was "key if we are to meet the transport challenges that will face the country over the coming decades".
Ashwin Kumar, rail director of rail customer watchdog Passenger Focus, said: "Wherever this new line is built, there will be winners and losers. It is important that the Government and industry continues to discuss the implications of this decision with affected communities and addresses concerns."
Mr Hammond told an audience drawn from local council representatives and business groups that the new line could transform the UK economy.
"The time for high speed rail in Britain has come," he said. "We have before us a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, an opportunity to reshape our economic geography.
"Too often in the past, Britain has baulked at the big decisions."
The minister, who praised the success of similar schemes in Asia and parts of Europe, added: "We must invest in Britain's future.
"We cannot afford to be left behind - investing in high speed rail now is vital to the prosperity of future generations."
The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) described the consultation process as "a complete train wreck".
Ralph Smyth, the CPRE's senior transport campaigner, said: "The Government has been so focused on trying to catch up and overtake the French on high-speed rail (HSR) that they have failed to ensure the public get their fair say."
He added that the consultation amounted to "a single route option, which the Government has already made up its mind to favour", that would be followed "by a Parliamentary petitioning procedure that has changed little since the days of 19th century railway barons".
He went on: "Instead of a Punch and Judy exchange of competing claims between pros and antis, the country needs a fair, open and informed debate about HSR."
The consultation will include roadshows and presentations on the HS2 plans which will see an HSR line passing through beauty spots in the Chilterns.
The line would bring London-Birmingham journey times down to 49 minutes.
The second phase of the project would see the creation of a Y-shaped HSR network north of Birmingham to Manchester and Leeds, with links to existing lines to Liverpool, Newcastle, Glasgow and Edinburgh.
London-Manchester and London-Leeds journey times would be reduced to 80 minutes.
The cost of the project, including links to the Channel Tunnel HS1 high-speed line and to Heathrow Airport, would be £32 billion in 2009 prices.
Over a 60-year period the HSR network would generate benefits with a net present value of £43.7 billion.
The net present cost to Government over the same period of building and operating the line would be £17.1 billion (calculated as total capital and operating costs of £44.3 billion minus fares revenues of £27.2 billion).
The Government announced today that only around 10 homes would be expected to experience high noise levels from the line.
Also, in the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, all but 1.2 miles of the lines would be either in a tunnel, in a cutting or alongside the A413.
Residents' groups, some local councils and some Tory MPs are firmly against the line and there also concerns that the planned 2015 start date for the scheme will be difficult to meet.
Around a dozen protesters opposed to HS2 gathered outside the convention centre today, bringing a "white elephant" made of paper to plead their case.
Jerry Marshall, from Action Groups Against HS2, said he believed the scheme would eventually be scrapped, probably after a future change of government.
"It seems crazy to throw away money on what is basically a vanity project," the 53-year-old businessman said.
Mr Marshall, who lives near Coventry, claimed: "There is a much cheaper, better alternative - the economic case doesn't stack up for a whole range of reasons.
"I am convinced that we will win in the end, but I am worried that may not happen until a new government comes in and this becomes a kind of Nimrod project and billions have been squandered."
Protesters have also voiced fears that the consultation is only being carried out to avoid a judicial review and that their views will not affect the Government's decision on HS2.
But Mr Hammond said the consultation was "real" and that its scale reflected the importance of the HS2 project.
Pointing out that he had already asked "difficult questions" about the proposals and reviewed every mile of the planned route with HS2 engineers, Mr Hammond told the launch event: "We want to hear the views of people from across Britain.
"No final decisions will be taken until everybody has had the chance to have their say."
Institution of Civil Engineers director-general Tom Foulkes said: "HSR carries huge economic and environmental potential and could free up capacity on an already stretched network."