As one of the first to champion the benefits of high speed rail, I would like to reassure the doubters that the Government's HS2 plans are about much more than shaving half an hour off the journey time to Birmingham.
In the years since privatisation, travel by rail has grown beyond all expectations. A system that some thought was designed to manage decline has delivered massive passenger growth.
But that success has brought a new set of challenges, with significant overcrowding issues on some of our major routes.
We are rolling out an extensive programme to address current problems, including a 30% increase in capacity on the West Coast route between London and Manchester. But Network Rail still expect the line to be full within around fifteen years. Virgin, the current operator on the line, believe that saturation point will come much sooner.
There is a pressing need to deliver new intercity transport capacity if we are to meet the future needs of our economy. We cannot afford to sit back and ignore the problem. This Government believes that the best solution is high speed rail.
One of the biggest advantages of our plans is that a brand new line would create huge additional capacity – allowing more people to travel in comfort – as well as releasing space on our existing railways for new services.
At the moment, the need to run fast intercity trains severely limits the number of slower stopping trains that we can run on our rail network. If we put many of those faster trains on to our new high speed line, that frees up a huge amount of space for mid-distance commuter trains.
It would help address crowding problems for long distance passengers, provide more space for commuter and freight services and improve punctuality and reliability.
New figures published by the Department for Transport on Friday illustrate some of the potential benefits. A new high speed line would allow us to run nearly 50% more trains from London to places like Northampton, Nuneaton and Tamworth. We could nearly double the number of trains that would stop at Milton Keynes.
It is too early for anyone to start writing the timetable for West Coast in the period after HS2 opens. But this latest research highlights some of the benefits our proposals could potentially deliver – benefits which are often overlooked.
Too often I hear from people in the south, “why should I support High Speed Rail, what’s in it for me?” Well for many people who use existing lines like West Coast, it will mean more frequent services that are less crowded.
But even the people living closest to the proposed route have an interest in the this country's future prosperity. The £44 billion boost to the economy we expect HS2 to generate would benefit the whole country, from Buckinghamshire to Burnley.
For too long the UK has suffered from a north-south divide – an economic imbalance which prevents two thirds of the country from realising its full potential. We are determined to make real progress in bridging that gap, and high speed rail will be essential to our success.
The consultation on High Speed Rail that is currently underway is one the most wide ranging and extensive ever undertaken.
We will listen and consider all the responses, including those which would help us further mitigate potential local impact. I genuinely believe that with care, and effort, and high quality engineering, we can address the worst of the local impacts and provide much needed reassurance to local communities.
But we cannot escape the fact that we’re still relying on railways built by the Victorians. It’s time we started catching up with a high speed rail revolution on which other European countries embarked over a generation ago.
I believe that we can and should aspire to have the sort of high quality long distance travel network that other nations take for granted. Our high speed rail plans provide a once-in-a-generation chance to address the transport capacity needs of the future, transform the economic geography of this country and to generate a boost for jobs and growth worth billions. We should not let that opportunity slip through our fingers.