A multi-billion pound pledge to build a high-speed rail link is set to be included as a key measure in Labour's manifesto for the next election, The Independent has been told.
All the political parties have pledged support for some kind of high-speed rail network for Britain. But senior Government figures believe that by presenting the electorate with a timetable, costs and a precise route for a new line, they can become the "party of action".
Work looks likely to begin on a new high-speed track between London and Birmingham in 2017, with the first trains running on the line by 2025. The Transport Secretary, Lord Adonis, is also keen to firm up a wider commitment to extend the track to Scotland, which could almost halve journey times between London and Glasgow.
The costs involved in constructing the line, which will involve a new station in Birmingham, are enormous. The Independent understands that Lord Adonis has been warned that Network Rail's £34bn calculation for a London to Scotland line was "a bit light". However, officials believe it can be afforded as costs would be spread over several years.
The Government has set up a company, High Speed Two (HS2), headed by Sir David Rowlands, which will provide a detailed plan of a potential London to Birmingham route by the end of the year. "We're talking down to the back gardens that will be affected," said a source close to the company.
Its highly sensitive findings will not be published before the Department for Transport has prepared its response. Officials fear that doing so would provoke legal action from people living in areas mentioned in the report. Lord Adonis will wait until February or March to publish his final policy decision. His conclusions will then be included as a manifesto pledge for Labour's election battle.
Stephen Joseph, the executive director of the Campaign for Better Transport, said that the pledge must not be made at the expense of improvements on the existing rail network. "It is crucial for us to see what else is in the Government's package for transport," he said. "We would also like to see if it will come with a decision to back down over building a third runway at Heathrow."
Sources close to HS2 said a strong business case had emerged for building another new parkway station in the West Midlands, but that any political pressure to include more stations along the route would severely damage the time-saving advantages provided by the high-speed services. Every new station would mean an extra 10 minutes on journey times.
Gordon Brown will lend his support to the high-speed rail plans during his speech to the CBI conference today. "We could achieve a European network of train services that takes us quickly not just to Paris and Brussels but quickly to Cologne and to Amsterdam. And one that starts not just in London but in the north of our country," he is expected to say.
The Government will frame its commitment to high-speed rail as part of its battle to reduce domestic flights and carbon emissions.
"The decision we take in the New Year will be the most important transport policy decision before the next election. With the right plan, the right resources and the right commitment we could have the first part of the north-south high speed line open and carrying passengers within 10 to fifteen years."