LONDON: A fierce backlash across the Conservative heartlands is expected when David Cameron promises to steam ahead with construction of a high-speed rail link connecting London to Birmingham and the north.
Opposition to the scheme, which is already setting parts of the Conservative Party against the government, is likely to increase when Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin publishes the proposed routes that will link Birmingham to Manchester and Leeds.
The whole project will be roughly shaped like a Y, with Birmingham as the point where the three lines meet. The London to Birmingham stem has already been published, provoking local opposition along almost its entire length.
The prime minister is convinced that the £32.7 billion project will provide a vital stimulus for construction firms.
The Department for Transport reckons that constructing and maintaining the line and new station hubs will create 100,000 jobs, as well as cutting the travel time between cities, and reducing congestion on the railway.
When the project is complete, the train journey from London to Manchester will be cut to one hour eight minutes, half its present duration, and the Leeds to London journey will be cut to one hour 22 minutes. From Birmingham, the journey time to Manchester will be cut to 41 minutes, and to Leeds it will be 57 minutes.
Cameron is expected to chair a cabinet meeting in the north, after which ministers will fan out along the route to spread the message. “Linking communities and businesses across the country and shrinking the distances between our greatest cities,” Cameron said. “High speed rail is an engine for growth that will help invigorate our regional economies. It is vital that we get on board the high-speed revolution.
“We are in a global race and this government’s decision to make high-speed rail a reality is another example of the action we are taking to equip Britain to compete in that race. High-speed rail is a catalyst that will help to secure economic prosperity across Britain, rebalance our economy and support tens of thousands of jobs.”
But opponents question whether the project will actually bring benefits that will justify its immense cost. They suggest the calculations about its effects are likely to be as flawed as the thinking that caused the West Coast main-line franchise to be awarded in August to First Direct.
After a legal challenge by Virgin, the current operators, the Department for Transport had to admit that it had miscalculated. The mistake could cost taxpayers £100 million.
The Government is already facing a bitter backlash over the planned route from London to Birmingham. Former cabinet minister Cheryl Gillan, whose Amersham and Chesham seat is on the route, has described it as “the wrong railway in the wrong place at the wrong time and for such a high cost.”
The speaker, John Bercow, whose Buckingham seat is similarly affected, has called it a “wretched, unnecessary project.”
Chancellor George Osborne may now have to cope with some local opposition because his Tatton constituency lies along the obvious route between Birmingham and Manchester.
Matthew Sinclair, chief executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, said: “The government is deluding itself if it thinks spending vast sums of taxpayers’ money on this white elephant is a substitute for a genuine plan for growth.