Building a balanced and low-carbon economy that can drive Britain's future growth and prosperity is the Government's biggest priority. That is why, over the past 10 months, we have taken action to tackle the debt that we inherited, and set out a programme of investment to support economic recovery and create jobs.
Tomorrow, I will launch a consultation on the Government's proposals for a future national high-speed rail network – a project that promises to transform links between our major cities, and deliver exactly the sort of long-term economic shot in the arm that Britain needs to compete effectively in the 21st century. Indeed, I believe a national high-speed rail network from London to Birmingham – and onward to Leeds and Manchester – can change the way Britain works as profoundly as the coming of the original railways in the 19th century.
It is a tribute but also an irony that the robustness of this system meant successive post-war governments failed to invest in our railway infrastructure – with the result that the modern network faces a very substantial capacity challenge.
Between 1994 and 2009, the number of miles travelled by rail passengers in Britain soared – from 18 billion to 32 billion; and demand is predicted to go on rising. Network Rail estimates demand on the West Coast Main Line route between London and Manchester will grow by around 60 per cent between now and 2024 – yet even today passengers stand on large parts of some journeys.
Ignoring the problem is simply not an option. More passengers would be forced on to short-haul air services or the road network, generating ever-rising levels of carbon. Intercity travel in Britain would become increasingly slow and unreliable, undermining the economies of our major cities and regions.
The evidence from abroad is that high-speed rail is the only effective sustainable answer to our intercity transport challenges. Many of our competitors recognise the huge benefits of high-speed rail, and are pressing ahead with ambitious plans. Britain cannot afford to be left behind.
Our proposed high-speed network would bring central London to within 49 minutes of central Birmingham, to within 80 minutes of Leeds and just 73 minutes of Manchester. High-speed services would provide a huge uplift in capacity on key routes between the North and London, and, as passengers transfer to the new line, valuable capacity will be released on the existing network for commuter and freight services.
High-speed rail can also help bridge the economic divide that has impeded growth outside London and the South-east for far too long. A high-speed network has the potential to generate around £44bn for Britain in 60 years, renewing inner cities, providing jobs constructing and operating the new lines, and developing our world-class engineering sector.
This is a huge and complex scheme that will have consequences for communities and environments along the route. We have already altered around half the original route to reduce local environmental impacts.
The consultation is just the first stage in an ongoing process. Alongside it, we are publishing a detailed economic case and a full appraisal of sustainability. We want people from across Britain to take part and make their views known, to deliver the best long-term solution for Britain.
Philip Hammond is the Secretary of State for Transport