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High-speed Rail

Volume 502: debated on Tuesday 8 December 2009

It is the first time that I have served under your chairmanship, Mr. Fraser, and it is a pleasure to do so. I am delighted to have secured the debate, which is important to many right hon. and hon. Members of the House, as well as hugely important to the country, not just for transport reasons but for our entire economic future.

I am pleased to say that I was delivered here safely on time, having got a very early train from Leeds this morning by standard mainline rail on, of course, the now publicly owned east coast franchise—may it stay in public ownership for the foreseeable future. I want early in my remarks to express my disappointment that it is not Lord Adonis who will answer today on this important matter. That is meant as no disrespect to the Minister, with whom I regularly correspond: it is simply a matter of the role of Lord Adonis, and the way in which he has personally taken the initiative on high-speed rail and shown an interest in it. We would all agree that it is positive that high-speed rail is very much on the agenda. I hope that today’s debate will contribute to that.

We must start by facing the country’s abysmal record on high-speed rail. In a meeting with Lord Adonis in his office I looked at the high-speed rail map of Europe, and it shows about 3,500 miles of high-speed rail line on the continent. Yet at the moment in the UK a rather pitiful 68 miles, currently known as High Speed 1, links St. Pancras to the channel tunnel. We need only look across the channel to see how the French have taken the matter forward. The regional economies of places such as Lille and Lyon grow because of the bonus for business and tourism, as well as the development of whole industries that are based around the siting of high- speed lines.

On the crucial point of the siting of lines and the impact for business, does my hon. Friend recognise that if it were announced that high speed would go only as far as Leeds, as the Conservatives have said, the immediate effect could be to encourage business to relocate away from the north-east and east of Scotland? It is very important to get the siting right.

Of course my right hon. Friend is right, and I am sure that other hon. Members feel similarly about their cities and areas.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on obtaining the debate. Obviously, France has a population similar to that of the United Kingdom, and an area three times the size of England, so there are separate issues. However, does the hon. Gentleman agree that high-speed rail, highly desirable though it is, is not necessarily an unalloyed benefit, in that we need to act in parallel with any major investment to improve local transport and protect the environment, and to ensure that the projects integrate with regeneration? In particular we need to make sure that the trips that are generated are not new ones, but transferred ones: modal switch is the name of the game, is it not?

Of course I agree with the hon. Gentleman from that point of view, and we must accept that we have a very poorly integrated public transport system in this country. The rail network has never recovered from the disaster of the Beeching cuts. Perhaps we must consider high-speed rail as an opportunity to rectify that. I hope for an improvement in regional railways, stemming from high-speed rail.

The benefits of high-speed rail are many and well documented, and include improved inter-city links with the capital and the great cities of the rest of the United Kingdom. It reduces congestion by encouraging people, as the hon. Gentleman said, to move from the roads on to the railway, and it also reduces the demand for domestic flights. Most of the right hon. and hon. Members present for the debate represent areas outside London, and there are clear benefits of high-speed rail for areas such as Yorkshire, the north-east and the north of England. Overall what has happened on the continent has proved the possibility that high-speed rail in this country would do something to redress the historic economic tilt of the United Kingdom towards London and the south-east.

We have today had an extraordinary announcement on Heathrow, about the third runway apparently ticking the boxes for emissions targets—either that is wrong or the emissions targets are not worth the paper they are written on—but there is nevertheless a real environmental benefit to high-speed rail. That is particularly on people’s minds at the moment because of the Copenhagen summit.

I agree that high-speed rail offers the possibility of environmental benefits for the entire country, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that one issue that will need to be faced is that its impact locally may involve serious environmental detriments. A challenge will be how to minimise those, if, indeed, the benefits that the hon. Gentleman identifies are to be perceived widely and shared by everyone.

I was aware from speaking to the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) that that important point was to be made this morning, and I am pleased that it has been. I hope that the views in my conclusions will be good news for both hon. Gentlemen.

The Northern Way’s evidence has shown that high-speed rail could create £13 billion in wider economic benefits. We have fallen behind our continental neighbours in that respect, and we need to take it seriously and make progress as quickly as possible.

I want to try to throw some light on the various proposals that are on the table, because there is some confusion about them. Four serious proposals are being considered. One is from Greengauge 21. The Government’s High Speed 2 quango, of course, has not yet reported, but we have indications of what it thinks. Network Rail came out with a report, and there is also the High Speed North proposal. I want to take the debate forward this morning by briefly outlining those options, and to focus on where high-speed rail should go. The Government have said they are committed to high-speed rail to Birmingham. That might be accepted as the starting point—although for some people it seems to be Heathrow airport, rather than central London, which I consider a grave error. High-speed rail will work if it connects London as a city with other capitals. I shall present more evidence about how important that is.

Greengauge 21 has an estimated cost of £25 million per route mile for the first network. The proposal is for, first, a route from London to Birmingham and Manchester, then to Glasgow and Edinburgh, with a dedicated branch into Heathrow airport. Greengauge 21 is an organisation that is very much interested in the project, and proposes a second line going up the east side of the country. There would then be connectivity between the two. However, the problem is that realistically, at the moment, it is a west coast high-speed rail proposal. There are other problems with it, not least that of ploughing straight through the Chilterns. That has already been commented on, and it needs to be taken seriously.

The Network Rail proposals are disappointingly similar. The cost estimate is about £32 billion, again to go from London to Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow and Edinburgh. That was in its publication “The case for new lines”, which was published earlier this year.

Order. Before the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire puts his point, I remind him that many hon. Members would like to contribute to the debate. He has already made one rather long intervention and as a member of the Chairmen’s Panel knows how to go about the business.

I will be very brief. Network Rail does not have a brilliant track record in that regard. It has deferred some rail renewal projects and laid off 1,000 skilled engineers, and from April next year it intends to reduce maintenance and cut a further 1,500 jobs. Will the skills be available to support the new high-speed lines once they are built?

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. Network Rail’s report was odd in that it did not make a strong case for its proposals apart from saying that the high-speed lines will deal with the greatest need—current capacity—rather than giving genuine economic benefits.

One interesting thing about the Network Rail report is that, like other studies, it firmly states that is not realistic or cost-effective to have an S shape. It seems that the Department for Transport and High Speed 2 are leaning towards going from Manchester to Leeds. However, the time that it would take to get from London to Leeds via Manchester would make it economically unviable. I challenge the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), who speaks for the Opposition. Conservative party policy seems to be for high-speed rail to Manchester and then to Leeds, yet the engineers say that that would not make economic sense.

It is rather concerning if that is the best answer that the hon. Gentleman can give to a serious point. I worry that Conservative party policy has been drawn up for its populist appeal rather than as a sensible way of moving the debate forward.

Then we come to High Speed 2, at a cost of £34 billion. Although High Speed Two Ltd has not reported, Government information acquired through freedom of information requests suggests that the line will simply go from Birmingham to Manchester and possibly on to Scotland, ignoring the east side of the country. I have read the studies and spoken to experts, transport policy planners and engineers about them, and the fundamental question that should be asked is not being asked. It is that wherever high-speed rail goes after the initial link with Birmingham, it should be planned on the basis of the greatest economic benefit.

We are dealing with a large amount of taxpayers’ money, and we all acknowledge that is a very expensive project that will take some time to deliver. It is vital that what is finally built delivers the greatest value for money, the biggest bang for your buck, the greatest economic benefit, but some of the proposals now on the table do not provide that. Indeed, the information acquired through freedom of information requests suggests a laziness, with people saying that the biggest cities are Birmingham and Manchester and that the line should simply go from one to the other.

I would ask all Members, including the Minister, to imagine a large map of the island of Britain with a red circle around the main centres of population and the key economic drivers. They will see that there is little between London and Birmingham; but there is nothing in the way of an economic driver or a large centre of population between Birmingham and Manchester. Conversely, on the other side of the Pennines there will be a red circle around Leicester, Nottingham, Sheffield, Leeds and Newcastle. Suddenly the lazy assumption that the line should go from Birmingham to Manchester is shattered. The debate has not focused sufficiently on the key question of ensuring that, wherever high-speed lines are built, they should indeed deliver the most economic benefit.

Lord Adonis wrote an article in the Yorkshire Post a couple of months ago in which he said that people must have their say on the matter. However, many on the east of the Pennines have the strong perception that that is not really the case and that the Government have followed the lazy assumption, taking the route of suggesting that the line should go to Manchester. If that is not the case, I ask the Minister to clarify the matter. The city regions that would be served in the west would include Manchester and Birmingham, and possibly Liverpool. As I said earlier, those served in the east would include Nottingham, Leicester, Leeds, Sheffield and Newcastle if they were linked.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government have not followed any lazy assumptions. We have not followed anything yet, and will not do so until the publication of the HS2 report at the end of the year.

That is a relief. The Minister will understand the worries that resulted from information acquired as a result of FOI requests.

I do not say that we do not get a fair deal in Yorkshire, but I must point out that our region continues to have the lowest transport spending—a lowly £234 per head in Yorkshire against a UK average of £326 and £641 in London. Capital spending in Yorkshire and the Humber is £668 million and in the north-west it is £979 million. Current spending in Yorkshire and Humber is £595 million; in the north-west it is £1,036 million.

The west cost main line has been upgraded at a cost of nearly £9 billion, and that was money well spent. I reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech); it is right that the people of the north-west should have good transport links, but we too should have them, as should the people of Leicester, Nottingham and all regions.

I was delighted when the Yorkshire Post took up my suggestion of a campaign, specifically for a high-speed rail link to Yorkshire. The paper’s excellent “Fast Track to Yorkshire” campaign has had real resonance with the region’s business community, the public and elected representatives.

We need to move the debate on a little further from saying that the economic case is not sufficiently at the heart of discussions about high-speed rail. We need to go one step further. This is where I may disagree with some Members. Having considered the various high-speed rail proposals, the enormous costs and the huge engineering challenges, as well as the transport policy challenges, I have come to the conclusion that it is not realistic—not in the medium term and possibly not in the long term—to have two lines running between the north and the south.

In an ideal world, it would be wonderful to have high-speed rail throughout the country. As I said earlier, we are unlike France; our country is much smaller. The island of Britain has a smaller landmass. Could there ever be two north-south lines? Some of the debate is focused on that question. I am 40 next year, but—[Interruption.] I thank those who think I look younger. According to current predictions, we will not be discussing a second line until I am 70 and there is no real chance of one being built until I am 80. Not only is that a sad indictment of the overly cumbersome way in which we make transport policy, but I have come to the conclusion that those on the east side of the country—I see colleagues here today from the east—are being led up the garden path with the idea that we may get a second line. We hear it said: “Don’t worry about it; you may get a second line at some time in the future. There, there; don’t worry about it when we make the rather lazy assumption to take the line from Birmingham to Manchester because they are the two biggest cities, even if we ignore the fact that that is not the strongest economic case.”

Just to reassure other colleagues I will make it clear again that I absolutely agree that Birmingham should be included; that is an obvious assumption. Manchester, too, should be included. It is a hugely important city, and the economic driver for much of the north-west region. Let me also say to my colleagues in Scotland that we cannot conceive of a genuine high-speed future without Scotland and both the great Scottish cities—the capital and the biggest city, Glasgow—being connected. My point is that it must not, and need not, be an either/or situation.

The one proposal that has not had sufficient consideration so far is the High Speed North proposal, which was the first serious one to come out. It was put together in conjunction with the 2M Group, which opposes the third runway, in July 2008. The proposal is a single line solution that runs through Leicester, Nottingham, South Yorkshire and West Yorkshire. It includes Manchester by way of a spur, in much the same way that Birmingham would be a short spur off the main line. The High Speed North proposal uses the M1 corridor, and, although there are huge engineering challenges in delivering that project, there is a real possibility of it happening.

The good news for the hon. Member for Aylesbury and the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), who represent areas in or close to the Chilterns, is that because there has been a skewing effect of the Heathrow idea, which threatens part of the area of outstanding natural beauty, it would be more sensible to look at starting and finishing the line in London. Such a suggestion would hugely reduce the impact on those areas and see the line moving across to form realistic corridors through Greater London and into the north. Additional tracks would be required, but I am told that that would not be a problem. After that, we could introduce European-style double-decked trains, which are needed on any high-speed network, to deliver the kind of passenger numbers that are needed.

The overall high-speed rail network could be completed within about 15 years, which is a further reduction in the delivery time of the project, at an estimated cost—all of the costs are estimated—of £33 billion. It is strange that such a project has not been seriously considered. If we considered it, we would conclude that it is realistic to have one line with spurs off it to deliver benefits north and south. If we had a single line going from Birmingham to Manchester, the next step would be to go to Scotland, and not the north-east. After that, what would we then do? It is not necessarily lazy to assume that we would then have one in the east. What about Bristol, Cardiff and other areas of the country? We could open up the south-west. Given the size of the country and the huge investment that would be required, it is simply not realistic to have two lines that run no more than 50 miles apart. I ask the Minister to consider again the proposal and see whether there is a way in which we can have one line delivering benefits to all the regions that could be served by high-speed rail.

Some of us have been stuck in debates about east versus west, north-west versus Yorkshire and so on. My message to all hon. Members is that we should be arguing for one line with spurs that serves all the main economic drivers on both sides of the country—the west and east midlands, the north-west, Yorkshire, the north-east and Scotland. Only that option would justify the vast investment that high-speed rail clearly needs. To plough ahead with one line, serving only Birmingham and Manchester—especially from Heathrow—simply does not make sense. It does not add up or deliver the kind of benefits that we need from such a project.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his thoughtful and well-informed speech. Before he concludes, does he agree that there is a fundamental issue here that high-speed rail, as exciting as it is, must not detract from the very badly needed investment in the classic rail network, particularly the completion of the electrification of the main lines and the improvement in rolling stock that the Government are already committed to?

As the Minister knows, I probably should not get started on discussions about rolling stock in Yorkshire. The hon. Gentleman has a real interest in railways and the rail network, which is not surprising given the area that he represents. Of course he is right, and that matter is absolutely fundamental. Again, this is not an either/or matter. We need real improvements. Clearly my time is limited today. My purpose has been to take on the high-speed rail debate and make it a more realistic one that will deliver real benefits, including to the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and city.

I would be very pleased to work with hon. Members from across the House, in particular with the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts), who is here, and the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), who is not, to show that there is real cross-party consensus in taking forward the matter. We have an interest in wanting high-speed rail links to Yorkshire and the Humber, and we will continue to campaign for that. All of us who are passionate about high-speed rail should now change the focus of our debate.

I ask one question of the Minister. Will he and, hopefully, Lord Adonis meet those involved in the High Speed North proposal, including the engineer Colin Elliff, who has done a wonderful job in bringing forward the matter, to get the proposal firmly on the agenda? We all want to see one thing, which is a genuine high-speed rail network that serves as much of the country as possible. A single line, running from north to south, delivering as much as possible, should be the very first step forward.

Before I call the next person to contribute, I remind right hon. and hon. Members that six people have indicated that they would like to make a contribution, and I intend to start the wind-ups at noon.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland) on securing this timely and important debate. I will not go through the economic reasons or justifications for investment in a second high-speed rail line, because they have already been well made, but what I will say is that HS2 must provide evidence of a strategic approach to the development of the second high-speed network—a network is exactly what we need. We want a plan for a long-term investment in high-speed rail in this country. It must be one that brings together all the major conurbations. The High Speed Rail UK campaign is an alliance of all the major cities. Some 55 per cent. of the nation’s wealth is generated by such conurbations and a third of the population lives within them, including London. Despite the differences between France and the UK, our population is on a par with that of France. Although we may be smaller, our population, wealth generation and our importance as an international economy mean that we can draw parallels with France. An investment in a high-speed network that links all the major conurbations, including those in Scotland, in the west and the east of the UK, and in the south-west, is critical to the economic future of this country. I do not want to lay down any kind of imperative as to where the first phase of high-speed rail should go or to say that there should just be the one line, because we have to be realistic. We must be strategic, and have a network laid down by HS2 and agreed by Lord Adonis that will link all the conurbations.

Given the importance of the coming period and the possible contractions in public spending in that period, it is quite unhealthy for the conurbations and for MPs representing constituencies from the east and west of the country to be arguing, in a sense, about where the high-speed rail line should go. If there is a squeeze on public spending, we may well find that it is really important that MPs from Yorkshire work with MPs from Manchester and other parts of the north-west to ensure that we keep our fair share of the spending cake from the Department for Transport in the coming years.

As several colleagues have already said today, it is also really important that we ensure that investment in the conventional rail network is maintained and, if at all possible, increased. There is a real interest in the north in ensuring that the Manchester hub, which is an example of that investment in the conventional rail network, goes ahead. So it is vital that all of us, especially those of us from the provincial cities, stick together in making the case both for high-speed rail and for investment in the conventional rail network.

It is crucial to recognise the economic importance of high-speed rail to shorten journey times not only between northern and Scottish cities and London but between the east and the west of the country. For instance, the economic relationships between Sheffield and Manchester, Sheffield and Bristol and Sheffield and Birmingham are as important as those between Sheffield and London, and they are potentially even more important given the investment that we will receive in Sheffield for generating nuclear research and nuclear capacity. It is not just the link with London that matters; that is a really important point.

I would always support a rail line that takes in Sheffield in the first phase of a strategic network; of course I would support that. For me, it is absolutely critical that Sheffield is linked on such a network. However, whatever decision is made about the first phase, it is really important that markers are laid down at the earliest opportunity to demonstrate a serious intention to develop the rest of the network.

For example, if a decision was taken to build a line that went to Birmingham and then across the country, via Rugby, to Sheffield and Leeds and then further north, it would be absolutely vital to undertake planning work to lay down the parameters and the groundwork to ensure that a line also went through the west of the country to Manchester and to areas further north. So, although it would not be realistic to develop two major rail lines at the same time as part of a first phase, the first phase must be paralleled with the investment to lay down the groundwork for further phases of high-speed rail.

Another example of that type of planning would involve the Woodhead route across the Pennines, which is the obvious choice for a transpennine link. If that route is not part of the first phase of the high-speed network, we must ensure that it is at least safeguarded for the future and for further phases of development. So I would like to hear more from the Minister about the potential for safeguarding routes that are currently not being used and about the importance of ensuring that early work is undertaken on further phases of high-speed rail.

I will conclude my remarks, because I know that other people want to contribute to this debate, by saying that we must be ambitious on high-speed rail. To be honest, we cannot afford to turn our backs on the opportunity that is now before us for the future of high-speed rail in Britain. There are 3,500 miles of high-speed rail network across Europe and we have just 68 miles of that network. That is absolutely appalling and shows our dreadful record in investing long term in public transport links, including rail links. We cannot afford to say no to high-speed rail and we cannot afford to get our approach to it wrong. Our approach must be strategic and ambitious and, as I said earlier, there must be a network that links all the major conurbations, giving each one the opportunity to develop economically, bringing the country closer together and, if you like, enabling the regions to develop an economic capacity that will allow them to compete with London. I say that for the sake of London as much as for the sake of the regions, because if London continues to grow at the expense of the rest of the country, in the end it will become unsustainable. That would not be good for UK plc.

So we have to invest in high-speed rail; we have to stick together in the regions on this issue, and we have to ensure that we get the decision on high-speed rail right.

First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland) on securing this debate. High-speed rail is one of those things that almost everybody, whichever part of the country they represent, can happily sign up to as an attractive and valuable idea in principle. The trouble is that, unless and until we reach the stage where we are starting to debate particular route options and the problems and challenges that arise from each of them, we will not start to come to terms with both the benefits and the costs that are involved and we will not be able to assess the benefits and costs of a project of this ambitious scale.

We do not have a route yet. We have all sorts of speculation or informed leaks appearing in the media about what High Speed 2 will produce. We have a model of high-speed rail development that is rather different from Network Rail and we also have the other two proposals to which the hon. Gentleman alluded.

When the Minister responds, I hope that he will clarify one point, which is the timing of any announcement by the Department for Transport. My clear understanding is that HS2 is under an obligation to present its report to the Secretary of State for Transport by the end of the year. In an earlier intervention, the Minister talked about an announcement at the end of the year. My constituents and I want to know whether the Government are looking to make a public announcement at the turn of the year, as the Minister indicated in his intervention, or whether Ministers will study the report for a bit before they make a public announcement.

I am happy to advise the hon. Gentleman that it is the Government’s intention to consider the report. It will be a significant report requiring appropriate consideration. Furthermore, we will obviously want to ensure that it is aligned with any other publications on our national transport corridors.

I am grateful for that somewhat elliptical response from the Minister; it did not seem to clarify the Government’s timetable very much at all.

In the Select Committee on Transport, I recently asked the Secretary of State for Transport about the HS2 report; I asked him if I could get a copy of it under the Christmas tree. His answer was that he would have a copy under the Christmas tree, but it would be a number of months before I could receive a copy, because there could well be planning blight involved.

The hon. Gentleman’s account of that Select Committee hearing rather fits with my recollection of a radio interview with the Secretary of State a couple of weeks ago.

I think that I represent a greater proportion of the Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty than any other Member of the House and already there is concern in my constituency about reports in the newspapers and the broadcast media that HS2 will propose routes that would plough straight through the heart of the Chilterns AONB. If such routes are indeed proposed, it seems to me that the exercise that I and other Members who represent constituencies in the Chilterns must undertake would be to balance the national interest with the interest of our constituencies. The Government could reasonably ask our constituents to consider that issue too.

Any proposal involving the Chilterns would have to pass two critical tests. One is a financial test involving value for money. Is the very large expenditure of public money entailed by a high-speed rail proposal justified by the economic benefits that would accrue to the nation? Also, would we be able to recoup at least a large part of that investment from various carbon access charges in subsequent years? Part of that analysis must include whether the fares it would be necessary to charge to make a sufficient return on the capital outlay would be affordable for ordinary people in this country. One reason why the abortive Central Railway freight project fell is that it became apparent that the necessary capital expenditure could be financed only on the expectation of freight access charges too high to attract any significant amount of traffic away from the motorways on to the proposed railway line.

The value for money test is particularly important given the point made by the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Sir Peter Soulsby). It is inevitable that expenditure of that order—current estimates of the total are between £30 billion and £40 billion—will involve diverting money that might be spent on upgrading other parts of the network, which sorely needs upgrading and modernising at many bottlenecks and pinch points that we could all identify.

Secondly, there is the environmental test. For my constituents, that is of particular importance. My constituency includes an area that is part of both the green belt and the Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty. By definition, therefore, it is an area designated by successive Governments as having landscape of national value. There is quite a lot of National Trust land along the valleys of the Chilterns. The Chilterns Conservation Board, the statutory agency charged with protecting the AONB, along with the National Trust, the Chiltern Society and the Campaign to Protect Rural England, is already concerned about the proposals emanating from HS2.

When the report is published, I will want to see evidence of how the environmental balance would be struck. A project of that scale, like any big construction project, will inevitably involve the emission of a great deal of carbon. How will that be placed in the balance? What assumptions will be made about how much carbon will be saved by diverting passengers away from domestic flights and road travel on to the proposed new high-speed rail network?

My hon. Friend is making all the points that I would seek to make if I had time to speak. Does he agree that the project affects not only the Chilterns but, on one showing, the edge of London through the Colne valley regional park? One of the proposed schemes envisages building a Heathrow airport terminal, culverting the Colne along a section of its length and driving the railway line through the heart of the park, which has long been regarded as a key lung of considerable biodiversity on the edge of London. Those things will also have to be factored in—I will be interested to hear the Minister’s response—if that is indeed going to be the preferred route.

My hon. Friend makes a telling point in respect of his constituency. Those of us who represent seats in Buckinghamshire are all too well aware that the Government are insisting on the construction of tens of thousands of additional new homes in Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire. One argument—which, in fairness, the Government put forward themselves—is that areas such as the Colne valley regional park and the Chilterns AONB are critical to the Government’s vision of sustainable communities where urban development provides residents with access to neighbouring areas of open space in which to enjoy recreational and sporting opportunities. The loss of that rural amenity must be placed in the balance, as must the risk of permanent and irreparable damage to landscape that Governments over the years have defined as being of national significance.

My questions to the Minister are these. First, what arrangements will be made for environmental impact assessments? Do the Government envisage a single assessment for the entire project, dealing with both strategic and local impacts, or will more than one such assessment be done? At what stage in any Government proposal would such an environmental impact assessment be presented? For example, would a full EIA be available to Parliament and the public before the proposal was voted on in the House of Commons?

Secondly, what consultation do the Government plan to hold with people whose personal lives, amenities and local communities could be seriously adversely affected by the construction of a high-speed rail link and who, because the rail link will exist to serve cities and will have as few intermediate stations as possible, are unlikely to benefit very much from its operation?

Thirdly, how will the Government take account of the fact that there is an inevitable relationship between the cost of the project and the provision of measures to mitigate the damaging environmental impact of a new railway line? Cuttings, tunnels and embankments to protect people from noise pollution all cost money. All too often, as I know from having the M40 in my constituency, Governments over the years have cut corners when it comes to protecting people, particularly in rural communities, from the adverse impact of large-scale infrastructure improvements. It would not be acceptable, for example, for all the money for environmental protection to go into tunnelling under London and then for the Chilterns or other rural areas affected to be told that there is no money left to look after their interests. I hope that the Minister will give us some assurances on those points.

Before I call the next speaker, I remind right hon. and hon. Members that there are still six people left to speak in 12 minutes.

I will be brief, Mr. Fraser. I support the concept of high-speed rail. I congratulate the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland) on securing the debate. We have worked closely on the possibility of high-speed rail links into south and west Yorkshire. I agree that it is important in the meantime to consider other measures such as electrification, track improvements to the midland main line and other improvements for which I have been campaigning, with other colleagues such as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith).

The benefits of high-speed rail are clear. Getting people out of planes and their cars is good for the environment, and the possibility of rebalancing economic growth in this country back to the north is important. It is also important that we have a vision for the long term, not just of a short single line, but of a network for the whole country, and that we plan over 10, 20 or 30 years. We need only look at France and Spain: only six years ago, the train journey from Madrid to Barcelona took me six hours; it now takes two. Soon Spain will have more high-speed track than any other country in Europe. If Spain can do it with that sort of planning, we ought to be able to do it as well.

I certainly oppose proposals involving just one line to Birmingham, or the ridiculous idea of a line going from Birmingham to Manchester and then cutting across the Pennines to Leeds as an afterthought—I cannot possibly be associated with any scheme that treats Leeds simply as an afterthought. Occasionally in the past, Sheffield and Leeds have competed over things; on this occasion, the two cities are united, as are the parties. Any strategic approach to high-speed rail in this country must serve the major cities of the east midlands—Leicester, Nottingham and Derby—and go on into west Yorkshire and serve Sheffield, Leeds and other places. If high-speed rail is to be effective, it must target those major areas of population.

As the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West said, two proposals, each with advantages and disadvantages, would do that. The first is to go straight up the middle of the country. That is a logical way to serve the east midlands and south and west Yorkshire. There would be spurs off to Birmingham and Manchester and the line would go on to Newcastle and Scotland. In terms of population covered against track used and pounds spent, that is probably the most cost-effective option, although I understand that it could divide some of the supporters of high-speed rail who want the alternative proposal to be taken up.

The alternative is the Y option—a line that would go from Birmingham to Manchester, with a spur coming off somewhere near Rugby that went on to the east midlands, south and west Yorkshire and the north-east. If the Y option were taken, it would make economic sense for only one line to go to Scotland, and that would be the north-eastern branch to Edinburgh and Glasgow. I am not sure that there is economic sense in taking two lines to Scotland, but we can have that debate.

My argument is simple: we need a clear strategy from the Government and a commitment, when they make the decision, not to just one short line, but to a network for the country. If the Y line were chosen, I would argue that both branches should be developed in parallel. The eastern side of the country cannot wait until the western line is built for its line to be started. Having such a strategy is important for the development of an industry in this country that can produce the rolling stock and trains and the equipment needed to build the lines. Without that certainty, industry will not invest. It is important that jobs are created, not just through high-speed lines serving the population, but by the generation of economic development through the production of trains, rolling stock and equipment.

Mr. Fraser, I will restrict my remarks to a few points emphasising the environment. A lot of good things have been said, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland) on securing the debate.

I use the train from Glasgow to London regularly and I enjoy my time on it. Taking the train is cheaper and better for the environment than other forms of transport, but it is certainly not faster. Environmental figures from the Association of Train Operating Companies show that rail transport produces 42 grams of CO2 per passenger kilometre, road 127 grams and air 144 to 304 grams. I accept that if initially we are to go to Birmingham, that is to do with capacity in south-east England, which must be addressed; but if we are talking about time and, linked to that, the environment, the savings are greater if we can get plane users to switch to rail, and that means running a line to Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen much more than to Manchester, Birmingham or Leeds.

There was an interesting discussion yesterday at the all-party rail group about whether we should go for a network immediately, or for a step-by-step approach. I think the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) was right to say that we need a strategic view, even if we build in stages. When the motorway was built from Glasgow to London, Scotland built it right up to the border but England failed to build the motorway to match it. We must not do that again. I urge real consultation from the start with whatever Scottish Government are in power. If it is going to take until 2025 just to finish the line to Birmingham, there will presumably be many different Governments here and in Scotland before it is finished. There is support from all parties, but there will also be opposition in all parties.

I will keep my remarks brief, Mr. Fraser.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland) on securing the debate and on his campaigning. It is about 20 years since I started the campaign for the upgrade of the west coast main line. I had black hair at that time and was about 3 stone lighter. The first thing that he must do is keep his seat.

I take exception to one or two points. A high-speed line would not be built to Birmingham to reduce the journey time by 20 minutes—£10 billion would not be spent on that, because it does not make economic sense. The reason for doing it is that it is the start of the high-speed line. The hon. Gentleman was rather lazy in his arguments. When he did not like something, he said that it was a lazy conclusion, but did not go into the issue.

The point is that we need to build a high-speed line because there are major capacity problems on our railways. Whether we like privatisation or not, a lot of people have been travelling by rail and there are major capacity problems. We therefore have to build new lines. If we are to build new lines, we might as well build high-speed lines so that there is a better railway. The capacity problem is in the west, on the lines to Birmingham and Manchester. Beyond that, we can argue about which direction the line should go in. There is a major capacity problem that we need to deal with and that is why we are talking about building a high-speed line. This is not a wish list. We are talking about spending £30 billion to complete one line from London to Glasgow and Edinburgh. That is a lot of money, so we have to justify it. The capacity problem is the justification.

We do not have to forget about the classic, traditional lines. I chair the all-party west coast main line group and our lobbying has been successful. At the moment, speeds on the west coast and east coast main lines are limited to 125 mph. The speed on both lines could be pushed up to 140 mph with little investment. I suggest to people who live on the east coast that their first priority should be to upgrade the east coast main line, because that could bring faster speeds and quicker journey times to London and elsewhere without the need to wait 30 years for the high-speed line, as the hon. Gentleman said. We need to sweat our existing resources better.

We must be careful that those who live on the periphery of London, such as the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), do not block the advancement of the economy in the north. The question of Scotland, as raised by the hon. Member for Glasgow, East (John Mason), is difficult. From the Scottish border, it is about 70 or 80 miles to Edinburgh and Glasgow. The question is whether the Scottish Government will have the money to pay for that and whether an independent Scottish Government would have the money to pay for it. I doubt that they would.

I think that an independent Scottish Government would have a lot of different priorities, and this question is about priorities. If we are putting money into things such as nuclear weapons, there will not be money for railways.

I take it that the hon. Gentleman’s party would scrap Trident to build the high-speed line. I am very interested in that because I represent Carlisle, which is on the Scottish border.

High-speed lines work. They work on the continent and High Speed 1 works. However, we must drive down the costs of high-speed lines. There is a very good line from St. Pancras to the channel tunnel, but it is the most expensive high-speed line in the world. We must reduce the costs and make savings. When the policy is decided on, it must be stuck to.

I chaired a meeting of the all-party rail group last night. An hon. Member who is not present said that he would sooner have no high-speed line than one that did not go to Yorkshire. That is the sort of planning and bigotry that has held back the railways in this country for so long. We need a high-speed line, we have to give it some thought, we must get the money to do it and we must do it as cheaply as possible, but in the meantime, we must not forget the lines that we have. I say to the people on the east coast, the upgrade of the east coast main line and the electrification of the midland main line should be their first priorities.

[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair]

I will be very brief indeed. I want to put in a plea about the first stage, which hon. Members all agree will go to Birmingham. HS2 still has to report on whether we will have two stops in Birmingham—one in the city centre and one at Birmingham international airport. I want to explain to hon. Members why it is so important that we get a Birmingham international airport stop.

First, the west midlands economy is highly dependent on access to fast communications. We have had the worst unemployment increase in the country and we have suffered worst from the downturn. We are looking for overseas investment and we are having an extension to our runway to facilitate wide-bodied aircraft, so that people can come into Birmingham international and move on south, or to Manchester or further north. That is extremely important and will provide economic benefits for the whole country, not just the region. A high-speed rail link will make Birmingham international airport truly international and, as other hon. Members have said, it will be the first step towards having a better, faster, environmentally friendlier link to the rest of the country.

Thank you, Mr. Benton, it is a pleasure to serve under you this afternoon. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland) for securing this important and timely debate. As we await the HS2 report, which will no doubt be the Secretary of State’s Christmas reading, it is vital to debate an issue that could shape our domestic transport infrastructure for the rest of the 21st century.

It is fair to say that the Government have been slow to get on board in support of high-speed rail. Had Lord Adonis not been made Secretary of State for Transport, I doubt whether the Government would have had a change of heart. Hon. Members will remember the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Bolton, West (Ruth Kelly), who said only two years ago that

“it would not be prudent to commit now to ‘all-or-nothing’ projects…for which the longer-term benefits are currently uncertain”.

Government inaction and indifference to high-speed rail has resulted in the UK lagging behind the rest of Europe. As my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-West mentioned, out of 3,500 miles of high-speed rail around Europe, only 68 miles are in the UK, between St. Pancras and the channel tunnel. Hon. Members from all parties will be aware that the Liberal Democrats were the first party to pledge support for a high-speed rail link to the north and beyond. As usual, the Conservatives have limped in at the last minute with a half-hearted proposal.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, in the run-up to the general election, now is an opportune time for all parties to make a clear commitment to a high-speed rail network throughout the UK that serves all major cities, so that no area suffers from blight?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and I am certainly happy to go on record as giving a Liberal Democrat commitment to a high-speed rail network. I hope that the other parties will do likewise.

Understandably, there will be much debate and disagreement about the exact route of a high-speed network, and hon. Members will make the strongest possible case for high-speed rail coming to their own areas. I was interested to hear that the General Synod of the Church of England has stated in a recent resolution:

“This Synod urges Her Majesty’s sustain employment opportunities, further environmental targets and strengthen future economic and social development by implementing the planning and development of a high speed rail line from London to the North-West and Scotland.”

I am not sure how that resolution will go down and be viewed in God’s own county of Yorkshire.

I do not want to get too embroiled in a debate about the exact details of a network, except to say that we envisage a high-speed rail network, rather than just a line, which will serve and provide access to northern cities and carry on through to Scotland. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) is absolutely right that Members representing northern cities either side of the Pennines should not fight over which way the line goes; they should work together to ensure that the north, Scotland and other regions of Great Britain receive the same transport funding as the south-east.

Until we know what is in the HS2 report, we are not in a position to talk about the detail of the exact routes. Sir David Rowlands recently told the BBC that a spur north of Birmingham

“would allow both sides of the country to be served…We will tell the government that the preferred option from our point of view is a network that certainly serves Manchester as well as places like Nottingham, Sheffield, Leeds and up to Newcastle and one way or another, up to Scotland.”

That is broadly in line with our thinking on providing a network, rather than simply a single line, but the devil is in the detail.

There is also the issue of stations. My hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) raised the issue of Birmingham international and Birmingham New Street. Of course, there will be a wider debate about whether we ought to consider city centre or airport locations for stations. Clearly, such details will have to be debated thoroughly.

May I inform my hon. Friend that New Street is not likely to be an option for Birmingham? We might be able to develop the east side of Birmingham, which is in need of regeneration, in order to facilitate a Birmingham city centre site.

I thank my hon. Friend for that clarification. I meant to say Birmingham city centre, rather than Birmingham New Street.

The real issue is how we will pay for high-speed rail. Some hon. Members were at the all-party rail group meeting last night at which high-speed rail was discussed. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew), who has done an excellent job of chairing the all-party rail group and has argued the case for investment in rail over a long period. In these uncertain economic times, there is understandable concern about whether any Government will be prepared to commit the money, particularly for such a long-term project.

In our policy paper, “Fast Track Britain,” we have set out in great detail the benefits of high-speed rail and other rail improvements, but we have also indicated how we would start to pay for them. There would be a £30 surcharge on domestic flights— we have been very open about that—and a lorry road-user charging scheme, which would also ensure that foreign lorries paid their way for using UK roads, instead of having an unfair advantage over British hauliers. We would also get more money out of the train operating companies by offering much longer franchises in return for better investment. Currently, train operating companies have little incentive to invest for the future, as they are uncertain whether they will be running services in two or three years’ time.

We are the only party to have a costed plan. In the Manchester Evening News on 9 September, the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs. Villiers) claimed that the Conservatives have a costed plan. Perhaps the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) will clarify how the Conservatives will pay for their plan. I recall listening to the shadow Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet, at an all-party rail group meeting possibly 18 months ago. She was trying to claim that the Conservatives could pay for high-speed rail out of existing budgets, and still have money for the rest of the network. Is that still the position of the Conservative party? If so, where will the savings be made and what part of the existing rail network budget will be cut?

As for the Government, I suspect that we will have to wait until the Secretary of State for Transport has finished his Christmas reading before we get any commitment to funding HS2, but I will be interested to hear what the Minister has to say in his reply. In the meantime, the Liberal Democrat programme for high-speed rail would begin immediately and be rolled out over 15 years. A high-speed network is vital not only to increase capacity, but to encourage more people out of their cars and dissuade them from taking domestic flights, as well as to help drive the economy and growth in the north and Scotland.

Developing a high-speed network would free up capacity on the conventional railway for shorter-distance local travel, as well as for freight. Currently, some local services play second fiddle to inter-city services and, following last January’s timetable changes, some local services became less frequent or were lost completely to increase inter-city capacity. Tony Collins of Virgin Trains has highlighted that the west coast will run out of capacity possibly as early as 2015, and certainly by 2020, despite the £9 billion invested in the west coast main line. High-Speed Rail UK estimates that a high-speed rail network could accommodate all the passenger traffic travelling on the west coast, east coast and midland main lines twice over, which would be up to 15,000 passengers per hour in each direction.

Of equal importance is the potential for expanding rail freight. I understand that HS2 is unlikely to recommend carrying freight on any extended high-speed network, but ruling that out at this stage, in my view, would be a mistake. There is little justification for not taking advantage of the network through the nights when passenger services are not in use. Even if we ruled out freight on the high-speed network, freeing up capacity on the existing network would undoubtedly open opportunities for freight on the traditional lines.

There are sound environmental reasons for supporting high-speed rail. The Eddington transport study estimated that it could lead to carbon savings of 500,000 tonnes per year, or 30 million tonnes over 60 years, valued at £3.2 billion. Transport is responsible for around a quarter of all emissions in the UK and, more worryingly, is the only domestic sector in which emissions have risen since 1990.

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but I am trying to be absolutely fair about allocating time. It is already 11 minutes past 12 and other Members are yet to speak, including the Minister, so I ask the hon. Gentleman to bring his remarks to a conclusion.

I will quickly bring my remarks to a close.

The other massive benefit of high-speed rail will be to the economy. I rarely agree with Sir Richard Leese, the leader of Manchester city council, but I think that he was spot on when he said:

“The two major challenges facing our next government will be the economy and the environment. A far-reaching high speed rail network that serves the main economic hubs of the UK will help to succeed in both of these areas.”

I, too, welcome the opportunity that the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland) has offered us this morning by securing the debate. It gives me the opportunity to spell out why I believe absolutely that a high-speed rail network is important for this country and why we hope the Government will do a little more than play catch-up in this matter, which is certainly what they are doing at the moment.

We have heard some interesting contributions. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith) made a thoughtful contribution, yet again, on the importance of the strategic network. My hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) made the point about routes, which we will all have to address when the High Speed 2 report is published. Clearly, there will be issues about national considerations versus local considerations, and local environmental issues versus national environmental issues. He was right to raise not only the concerns from his constituency, but the argument that the House will have to face when a clearer route is proposed.

I was interested, as usual, by the remarks of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts). He did not want Leeds to be an afterthought, so he must be worried that his Government give no thought to Leeds or Sheffield in their plans. I can only concur with the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew), who said that the case for high-speed rail is not an end in itself. It must contribute to the economic regeneration, the travel considerations or the environmental considerations of this country.

While I forgive the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West for his less than gracious response to my intervention, I gently say to him that simply claiming that anyone else’s argument is a lazy assumption is in itself a lazy assumption. He predicates his argument on the views of Mr. Colin Elliff, whom I have met three or four times. Mr. Elliff is a passionate advocate for his route, but surely the hon. Gentleman must remember that many people think Mr. Elliff’s route has several problems and that he, I suggest gently, is a relatively controversial figure in the railway industry.

There are, of course, problems with all schemes that must be dealt with, and it would be dishonest to suggest otherwise. On the hon. Gentleman’s other point, can he tell me why the Conservative leader—joint leader in a coalition—of Leeds city council, Andrew Carter, does not support Conservative party policy and wants a direct high-speed link to Leeds?

My understanding, from my conversations with Mr. Carter, is that while he would prefer a direct link to Leeds, presumably as would the hon. Gentleman, he absolutely supports a plan, which is the only plan proposed at the moment, for a service running from a London terminus, with a spur to Heathrow, to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds. The hon. Gentleman has advocated a different route today, but I believe that Andrew Carter, with whom I speak regularly, very much supports the plan.

It is worth emphasising that the plan laid out by the Conservative party is more extensive than the one the Government currently propose, or any that they are likely to propose via High Speed 2, if the rumours are correct. We have continually emphasised that we see that development as the first stage of a network. I accept that at some stage other major cities in England, such as Newcastle, and Scotland will want to be connected. Ultimately, we, and everyone in this Chamber, want to see a full national network connecting as many UK cities as possible.

I say to the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech) that we, unlike other parties, have sat up and done the hard work on the detailed feasibility study, looking at the data and analysis from several expert sources in relation to finance and construction. Our modelling of projected revenue flows deploys some cautious assumptions on fares, which we have looked at with several operators, to ensure that we do not build a railway that no one can afford to use, because that would be pointless.

I have said before that high-speed rail must be neither an end in itself, nor a totem. It must be there to fulfil the key challenges. There is a desperate need for new capacity. I travelled on the west coast and east coast yesterday, and both were fabulous services—[Interruption.] The main line services, indeed. As the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe mentioned, the chief executive of Virgin acknowledges that there is a need for new capacity. With the west coast main line expected to be full to breaking point certainly within the next decade, but probably much earlier, we face a capacity issue. As the hon. Member for Carlisle rightly said, we will need to build new capacity. Should we build slow routes or fast routes? Surely we should build high-speed routes and concentrate initially on those routes that have capacity problems, particularly when considering the economic benefits.

There is no economic benefit in building a high-speed rail route to Birmingham, but there would be a huge economic benefit of building beyond, and I think that there is a national consensus on that point. Certainly, the economic numbers that we have had verified for our proposal show that connecting Manchester and Leeds to a high-speed network would benefit those cities by billions of pounds. We must layer on top of that the huge potential switch from air to road, as approximately 63,000 flights a year would be taken out if there were a high-speed line connecting London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds.

The reality, of course, is that flights from Manchester have been devastated by the upgrade of the west coast main line. The real benefit in reducing flights will come when the line is extended to Glasgow and Edinburgh.

I can see that as part of a network, but all I am laying out now is that, with regard to domestic flights and short-haul continental flights, we could take out around 63,000 flights. Whichever party is in power after the general election—I hope that it will be a challenge for a Conservative Minister—it will face the challenge of Air France wanting capacity on our High Speed 1, and we will see a further expansion of that.

Clearly, we must continue to make the case for high-speed rail, not as an end in itself, but because of the need for new capacity, the potential for huge environmental benefits as a result of modal shift and the potential for huge economic benefits through the shrinking of our country and economic zones. We must continue to make the case for a strategic network, wherever we start.

I readily concede that the Government have made huge strides, and Lord Adonis is to be congratulated on his desire for cross-party and national consensus on high-speed rail. That has been a huge change of attitude for the Government, and the message therefore from all parties is that we recognise the benefit to this country of high-speed rail. Sixty-eight miles of high-speed rail—0.007 per cent. of the continental European network—is something that we should be ashamed of and that we should all commit to change.

I hope that the Minister will clarify how the Government see high-speed rail developing in this country beyond whatever proposals come out of High Speed 2, and I would welcome a commitment from the Minister that he and the Government recognise that building a rail line to Birmingham should be only the start of a strategic high-speed rail network. Only if we have such a network will we get environmental, travel and economic benefits for our country.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland) on securing this important debate. High-speed rail is, without doubt, a hotly debated topic across the country, and I was grateful for the opportunity to hear all the views that have been raised today, including those from my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Ms Smith), the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) and the hon. Member for Glasgow, East (John Mason), the common-sense comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) and the views of the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt). I shall endeavour to respond to all the issues, but, if I do not, they have been heard and will be examined.

Railways across the UK are a success story. We have seen great improvements in the areas that matter most to passengers, including punctuality and reliability. Our priorities for the railway are still capacity, safety and performance. A reliable railway is the single most important requirement of passengers, and it is also important to the wider economy.

Rail punctuality and reliability have improved by more than 10 per cent. since early 2004. The rail White Paper, “Delivering a Sustainable Railway”, published in July 2007, specified further improvement during the high-level output specification period to 92.6 per cent. of trains arriving on time by March 2014, a 25 per cent. reduction in delays of more than 30 minutes and, to maintain momentum on safety, a 3 per cent. reduction in the risk of death or injury to passengers and employees by 2014.

The White Paper outlines the single biggest programme of investment for a generation. It does so without imposing new burdens on regulated fares while being able to return to historic levels the demands made of the taxpayer. More than £10 billion will be invested in enhancing capacity between 2009 and 2014, with overall Government support for the railway totalling £15 billion. Without drawing the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West into a debate on this, I can say that we will introduce a significant number of extra carriages on to the rail network in England and Wales by 2014.

The £8.9 billion spent on upgrading the west coast main line has already delivered faster journeys between London, Birmingham and Manchester and beyond, and the December 2008 timetable change has resulted in greater frequency of services to some of our greatest cities. For example, we now have more frequent and faster journeys between Manchester and London, with a train every 20 minutes during the day and average journey times of around two hours eight minutes. Liverpool and Preston to London takes only a few minutes over two hours, and Warrington and Wigan are less than two hours away. Chester is one of the big winners, having a regular hourly service for the first time, with a journey time of just two hours. Services between the north-west and Scotland have also improved as have those to the west midlands.

But it does not stop there. On 23 July, the Government announced a major £1.1 billion programme of rail electrification. The Great Western main line between London and Swansea will be electrified by 2017, the line between Liverpool and Manchester will be electrified by 2013, and we are working to identify other viable routes for electrification.

Turning to the central issue of this debate, high-speed rail in the UK, I would first like to mention that we already have our first high-speed rail line, the £5.8 billion channel tunnel rail link, known as High Speed 1. That significant project opened on time and on budget, and, from next week, HS1 will be used for the full-service Southeastern Javelin service. That timetable change will bring about the biggest change in more than 40 years and will mean an entirely new service pattern throughout parts of Kent, East Sussex and south-east London. It will provide passengers with more than 200 extra trains in the south-eastern region every day, boost capacity by 5 per cent. and dramatically speed up journey times for people using the high-speed services; for example, the journey time from St. Pancras to Ashford will be 38 minutes.

We are planning now to ensure that we are in the strongest position possible to make the right investments in future years to continue developing the rail network. However, we also recognise that the west coast main line will be operating to its maximum capacity by the end of the 2020s, and that a new route might be needed. That is why we have created High Speed Two Ltd to develop a proposal for an entirely new line between London and the west midlands, and to advise on the potential development of a new line beyond the west midlands. HS2 will also provide advice to Ministers on the potential development of a high-speed service beyond the west midlands and consider in particular the potential to extend to Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire, the north-east and Scotland.

To pick up on some of the points raised in the debate, I can assure those such as the hon. Member for Aylesbury and the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), who are concerned about local environment impacts, that HS2 has carried out detailed environmental analyses at a local level, and its report at the end of the year to the Government will include an assessment and mitigation measures. I can also advise that HS2 has been actively seeking the views of stakeholders from across the country and has engaged directly with interested parties as its work has progressed.

As hon. Members will be aware, the Secretary of State is also keen to understand the benefits that high-speed rail can deliver to the country and has met a range of stakeholders, including several Members of this House, to discuss the issue. I, too, have heard views on high-speed rail, in particular during my summer trip to the north of England, where I met with Nexus, South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire and Greater Manchester integrated transport authorities, all of which were keen to impress on me the value that high-speed services would bring to their economy.

To address a couple of detailed points, I can assure the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West in respect of double-deck trains that HS2 is working to a gauge minimum of UIC GB+ or similar, which will give the flexibility to run duplex high-speed trains on a new line if that is necessary. Of course, that would have freight benefits as well, which I believe addresses one of the issues raised by the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Leech).

Several hon. Members said that they wanted a strategy for a wider network, and I can assure them that in our response to HS2’s report early next year we will address the question of a strategic view on a wider UK network.

Let me set out why we feel that high-speed rail needs serious and informed consideration. Until recently, Governments considered rail in the UK to be in a state of inevitable and irreversible decline, and they failed to invest in new infrastructure. As a result, today we are behind most other developed countries in building a high-speed rail network. Yet over the past decade, rail has experienced a tremendous renaissance in Britain. High-speed rail has the potential to meet future inter-conurbation capacity requirements and sustainably to transform the transport connections between our major conurbations, with substantial economic, social and environmental benefits.

International experience bears that out. Before high-speed rail, just 24 per cent. of journeys between Paris and Brussels were by train. Since the introduction of a high-speed line between those cities, the proportion of train journeys has more than doubled to 50 per cent., with a huge increase in capacity. In Germany, high-speed rail is so popular that Lufthansa has scrapped flights between Cologne and Frankfurt—little wonder, now that the high-speed line has slashed the 110-mile journey time by train from two hours 15 minutes to just under one hour. Before high-speed rail in Spain, two thirds of journeys between Madrid and Seville were by plane; just one third were by train. With the advent of a high-speed line, the railway now takes 84 per cent. of the market. A similar dramatic change is taking place on the Madrid to Barcelona route, with the opening of the high-speed line between those two cities earlier this year.

I am not sure that we can lay all the credit at the door of the west coast main line upgrade, but it is the case that not that many years ago only one third of the journeys between London and Manchester were made by train, with two thirds being made by plane. Now it is the other way around.

The question is where we in Britain go now. The Department for Transport will receive the report from HS2 at the end of the year, and it is currently envisaged that we will respond early in 2010, at which time the HS2 report will be published. Later in 2010, we intend to consult on the proposed route, with options, between at least London and the west midlands, subject to analysis of HS2’s report and decisions thereafter.

We are keen to engage with colleagues in this House on high-speed rail. It is our firm belief that a project of this magnitude, with such long-term investment and planning timelines, will succeed only if we all work together, across parties, on a shared national strategy—