The creation of a high-speed rail network could be worth £44bn over 60 years to the economy, ministers claim today as they launch a major "hearts and minds" campaign to counter public opposition which could threaten the entire project.
To supporters, high-speed rail will cut journey times, narrow the north-south divide and create thousands of jobs in the construction and engineering industries. To critics, it will carve a deep wound through the heart of rural England, demolishing historic monuments and buildings and wasting billions of pounds in public money that will never be recouped from ticket sales.
Philip Hammond, the Secretary of State for Transport, warns Britain "simply cannot afford to be left behind" as other major countries invest heavily in high-speed rail to slash inter-city journey times and increase inward investment.
Writing in The Independent on Sunday, he acknowledges the plan for a 109-mile line stretching initially from London to Birmingham will have "consequences for communities and environments along the route". But he insists the national benefits outweigh local concerns.
However, Mr Hammond's claims are unlikely to quell the vocal opposition to the controversial plans, as campaigners mark the start of the Government's five-month-long consultation in Birmingham tomorrow night by lighting more than 50 beacons along the proposed line. One will be lit in David Cameron's constituency in Witney.
The Transport Secretary insists the project has the potential to generate billions of pounds for the economy and transform northern cities that have suffered for decades from underinvestment and detachment from the capital.
"It would help regenerate our inner cities, provide thousands of jobs constructing and operating the new lines, and help us develop our world-class engineering sector," he writes, warning that ignoring the problem of overcrowding is "simply not an option".
According to Mr Hammond, without a major expansion in capacity, more people will turn to air flights or car journeys, leading to increased carbon emissions. The Government also claims the line will create an extra 40,000 jobs.
Once fully operational, the high-speed line will cut journey times from London to Birmingham to 49 minutes, while Manchester will be a 73-minute trip and Leeds 80 minutes. With growing numbers travelling by train, several routes are already running at close to capacity. The new line would run 14 trains an hour, each with 1,000 seats. "Ignoring the problem is simply not an option," Mr Hammond writes. "Severe overcrowding would spread throughout the day, and the reliability of the network would deteriorate."
Ministers acknowledge privately that high-profile, vocal opposition to the plans – centred on picturesque villages and fronted by well-spoken Home Counties campaigners – risks casting a shadow over the vast scheme. It follows the termination of plans to sell forests after a public backlash and a high-profile campaign backed by celebrities, environmentalists and even the Archbishop of Canterbury. Already half of the proposed route for the high-speed line has been altered to take account of early objections.
Historic properties that will be adversely affected by the route include Hartwell House in Buckinghamshire, owned by the National Trust. The Grade I-listed property was first mentioned in the Domesday Book and belonged to an illegitimate son of William the Conqueror. Another building to have the peace and tranquillity it has enjoyed for centuries shattered is Grade I-listed Stoneleigh Abbey in Warwickshire, founded in 1154.
But it's not only the campaigners' vociferous opposition the Government should fear. There have been deep rumblings from within the coalition, as the proposed 250mph route will carve through the constituencies of no fewer than 16 Tory MPs. Several are lobbying against the proposals on behalf of their constituents, including John Bercow, the Speaker of the House, and Cheryl Gillan, the Secretary of State for Wales.
David Lidington, Conservative MP for Aylesbury and minister for Europe, said he would vote against the plans in Parliament, even if it meant losing his ministerial job. Other Conservative MPs, such as Steve Baker, MP for Wycombe, and Iain Stewart, MP for Milton Keynes South, have voiced concern. Mr Stewart said: "We run the risk of an enormous and costly error in this country if we do not get the details right."
Earlier this month, Labour said it may shelve the plans for the high-speed rail network if it wins the next election in 2015, as the party stressed it might not be able to find funding for the project. The Shadow Transport Secretary, Maria Eagle, said: "It would be irresponsible to make cast-iron spending commitments for beyond 2015 before we have listened to the public and come to conclusions about our future priorities."
Launching one of the country's largest ever public consultations tomorrow, first in Birmingham and later in Manchester, Mr Hammond will attempt to refocus attention on the substantial economic benefits. A series of regional seminars and roadshows is planned to make the case for the new line to communities in the main destination towns and cities and those along the route.
Since the plans for the HS2 network were first announced, action groups have sprung up throughout many of the affected parts of the country, and they are gaining strength. Campaigners – with no shortage of money – have signed up to Quiller, a Westminster consultancy, for strategic advice. Many legal experts who helped to put paid to Heathrow's third runway are also involved with the "anti" campaign. A spokesman for the HS2 Action Alliance said the group would continue to heap pressure on the Government, and will protest at the consultation tomorrow with a large white elephant.
"Nothing the Government can do or say can get round the fact that this project is a multibillion-pound white elephant that will cost Britain billions and get us nowhere," the spokesman said.
"Ministers admit that you'd have to build the entire project – not just to Birmingham – before even they can find a case for going ahead.
"Weeks before people's taxes are about to go up again, and at a time of massive spending cuts, people will justifiably ask, 'Haven't they better ways to spend our money?'"
Professor John Whitelegg
"The high-speed rail is socially regressive. High-speed rail is the preserve of relatively wealthy people who rush backwards and forwards to London."
Campaign for Better Transport
"We're very worried that ministers will need to cut budgets elsewhere to pay for HS2. That could mean even steeper fare rises and cuts in local rail services."
Midlands Industrial Council
"They are talking about spending countless billions of pounds on a rail link when our roads are in absolutely dire straits."
Conservative Party donor
"Even if I lived in Scotland I would be fuming that they are spending £30bn on what is a politician's vanity parade."
Cubbington Action Group
"If HS2 goes ahead as planned, much of [Cubbington] woods will be lost. This is ancient woodland that predates 1600. It's impossible to estimate how much of the wood would survive."
Action Groups Against High Speed Two
"I am concerned that the Government is throwing away our money on what is basically a vanity project."
Lichfield Action Group
"The business and environmental cases have been proved to be a sham and, at a time of unprecedented cuts in public services, spending £1,250 for every household in Britain on a vanity project is the wrong priority."
Villages of Oxfordshire Opposing HS2
"The biggest issue for us is going to be noise. There are no figures saying exactly how loud these trains are going to be, but it's going to have a major impact."
Middleton Action Group Against HS2
"Warwickshire will suffer the most blight of any area in the country, and receive none of the alleged benefits of HS2."
South Northants Action Group Against HS2
"Mr Hammond chose to make those really quite insulting remarks about Nimbyism, and in a way I think he has actually shot himself in the foot."
"People don't understand that the scale of HS2 is so overwhelming. This is going to affect us for thousands of years."