Government starts high-speed rail consultation
The government has launched its consultation on the proposed high-speed rail line from London to Birmingham.
The route would cut journey times to about 50 minutes, with work due to begin in 2015 if the plan is approved.
Opponents argue that the £17bn scheme will be a waste of money and that updating the existing West Coast mainline would be a better investment.
But Transport Secretary Philip Hammond said the high-speed line (HS2) would mean a £44bn boost for the UK economy.
Outlining the case for HS2 - which is planned to be extended to Manchester and Leeds and will cost a total of £32bn - at a conference in Birmingham, he said high-speed rail offered a "once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform the way we travel in the 21st Century".
"Countries across Europe and Asia are already pressing ahead with ambitious plans for high speed rail, while some of our key rail arteries are getting ever closer to capacity.
"We cannot afford to be left behind - investing in high-speed rail now is vital to the prosperity of future generations," he said.
Shadow transport secretary Maria Eagle said a national high-speed network "had the potential to bring our major cities closer together, boosting investment and economic growth in the north of England".
But she added: "The Tory-led government is only planning to take powers to construct the line as far as Birmingham which casts real doubt on their long-term commitment to delivering HSR in the north.
"They should think again and ensure the whole route is included in the forthcoming legislation."'National interest'
The project - introduced by Labour and continued by the coalition government - has proved highly controversial, with many living along the proposed route complaining that it will damage the environment.
Groups campaigning against the scheme are due demonstrate their disapproval on Monday. At 1800 GMT, Stop HS2 group will light a chain of beacons at beauty spots through which HS2 is scheduled to pass.
Gareth Elliott, senior policy adviser, British Chambers of Commerce
The high-speed rail is essential for economic growth.
It will bring £44bn worth of benefits to the UK, 8,000 jobs in construction alone, and beyond that jobs around stations and regions.
At the moment we have Victorian railways, we need a new fast line.
It is simply not good enough to upgrade working lines - after the West Coast main line £9bn upgrade, the line will still be exhausted by 2024.
We will be at critical capacity in 30 years time, so we need to start building the infrastructure for tomorrow today.
London to Birmingham is just stage one. We are supporting a high speed network that will link up the whole country, London and Manchester, Leeds and Scotland.
Opponents include not only residents' groups and local councils but some Tory MPs, while the rail industry and businesses are in favour of the line.
Earlier, Mr Hammond said: "Of course we will do everything we can to mitigate the impacts on areas like the Chilterns but projects like this have to be decided on the basis of the national interest and the overall net benefits it will bring to Britain."
Last week almost 70 business leaders, including CBI director general John Cridland and former British Airways chief executive Willie Walsh, gave their backing for HS2.
Network Rail said HS2 would be "a hugely significant enhancement to the national rail network", while Michael Roberts, chief executive of the Association of Train Operating Companies, said a new HSR line was "key if we are to meet the transport challenges that will face the country over the coming decades".
But Lizzy Williams, chairman of the Stop HS2 group, called the project "a complete waste of taxpayers' money when we can least afford it".
Matthew Sinclair, director of the TaxPayers' Alliance, which lobbies for lower taxes and greater government efficiency, said the cost was "utterly indefensible".Phase two
Lizzy Williams, chairman Stop HS2 group
The whole point with HS2 is it has not looked at any alternatives that are more sustainable and provide more value for money.
Every penny counts for families struggling through the austerity era and this is not economically justified. Do people really want to spend £1,000 of their own money on this? The costs outweigh any benefits.
The government should be investing in existing networks and local transport.
High-speed rail uses more energy and is not a low carbon solution either. It will not shift people from air travel.
We want to highlight to the country what is happening, we want people to look at the details and make informed decisions because it will affect us all.
"There are more affordable ways of getting the capacity needed and a high speed line for the rich - on a route already served by very quick trains - can't be the priority over giving ordinary families and firms across the country a better deal. HS2 should be cancelled," he said.
Ralph Smyth, from the Campaign to Protect Rural England, described the consultation process as "a complete train wreck".
He said the consultation amounted to "a single route option, which the government has already made up its mind to favour" and the country needed a "fair, open and informed debate about HSR".
Ashwin Kumar, rail director of rail customer watchdog Passenger Focus, said: "Wherever this new line is built, there will be winners and losers. It is important that the government and industry continues to discuss the implications of this decision with affected communities and addresses concerns."
The consultation will run until 29 July and events will take place in towns and cities along the 140-mile proposed route between London and the West Midlands, as well as in major cities across the country.
It is envisaged that 14 trains or more an hour will run on the HS2 high-speed rail project, each with up to 1,100 seats.
The second phase of the network plans to cover the onward legs to Manchester and Leeds.
The government is proposing a 'Y' shaped network linking London, the West Midlands, Manchester and Leeds, with stations in South Yorkshire and the East Midlands.
It argues links to existing lines will also enable through-running services to other cities including Liverpool, Newcastle, Glasgow and Edinburgh.
If the plans go ahead, the government expected the line to the West Midlands to be completed by 2026 and the legs to Manchester and Leeds finished in 2032-2033.