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Tories Promise High-Speed Rail Link for North

September 29, 2008

By Jonathan Reed

The line linking London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds promises to cut journeys from Leeds to London from 125 minutes to just 97. A journey from Manchester to Leeds could be slashed from the current 55 minutes to 17.As soon as they take office, a Tory government would launch a competition to develop the route and would pump in 1.3bn a year to pay for tracks and land. Plans for a third runway at Heathrow would also be dropped in proposals to be unveiled by Shadow Transport Secretary Theresa Villiers at the party’s conference in Birmingham today.The plans are likely to be welcomed by companies in the region who claim they are losing business because of congested roads and have been infuriated at the Government’s low levels of funding for major transport schemes in the North.A recent study by Northern Way calculated that high-speed rail routes from north to south and across the Pennines could give the UK economy a 10bn boost. The routes could also help tackle a yawning North-South divide, which presently has a 30bn productivity gap.Ms Villiers said: “A new high speed link between North and South would bring massive benefits for rail commuters opening up existing lines for new services. It will also generate huge benefits for business and the economy, help close the North-South divide giving a real boost to the North, and provide a genuinely green alternative to sitting in a traffic jam.”By committing to a new high-speed line, the Tories hope to free up more space on existing lines to ease overcrowding, a familiar problem for commuters. The Government has repeatedly refused to back high-speed rail beyond the line from London to the Channel Tunnel, although it has always kept its options open.The Tories say the money would come from existing government spending on rail between 2015 and 2027 to meet the cost of the track and land, while private companies would carry the risk for construction and its operation. Train operators will pay a franchise fee, and competitors would be required to guarantee journey times.The route would also have environmental benefits, taking cars off the road and potentially cutting the number of internal flights. The pledge to abandon plans for a third runway at Heathrow will be welcomed by campaigners embroiled in a bitter campaign against the proposals, but would be a major blow for the airport’s owner BAA which says the extra capacity is vital for the UK economy.The Tories, whose conference kicked off yesterday, say they have already carried out a detailed feasibility. They are also proposing a high-speed link from Heathrow to London’s St Pancras station.”Linking Heathrow with St Pancras and a high-speed rail link to the North could provide an alternative to thousands of short- haul flights now clogging up the airport,” said Ms Villiers. “So our proposals can provide a real answer to overcrowding at Heathrow without the environmental damage and noise pollution a third runway would cause.”

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