UK approves contentious new high-speed rail line

January 10, 2012 - 12:41 PM

LONDON (AP) — The British government Tuesday approved construction of a controversial high-speed rail link between the country's two biggest cities, despite opposition from many residents along the proposed route.

Transport Secretary Justine Greening said the 140-mile (225-kilometer) line, known as High Speed 2, would be "the backbone of a new transport system for the 21st century" — as vital as the country's 19th century railways or its post-World War II highway network.

She said Britain could no longer "rely on the patch and mend approach" to its aging infrastructure, and insisted the 32 billion pound ($50 billion) project should go ahead despite tough economic times.

The Conservative-led government is in the midst of cutting 80 billion pounds from public spending in a bid to slash the deficit.

"No matter how hard times are we cannot stop investing for the future," Greening said.

The new line will carry 225 mph (360 kph) trains and shorten journey times between London and Birmingham from almost 90 minutes to 49 minutes.

Greening said the project would transfer about 4.5 million journeys per year from air and road to trains.

Some lawmakers, environmentalists and residents oppose the plan, saying the new rail line will ruin tracts of England's picturesque countryside, is too expensive and will not benefit most Britons.

Joe Rukin, who coordinated a campaign against the route, said it was "a white elephant of monumental proportions."

"There is no business case, no environmental case and there is no money to pay for it," he said.

But business groups welcomed the investment in Britain's creaky transport network.

"Britain cannot continue to 'make do and mend' when it comes to its substandard infrastructure," said John Longworth, director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce. "Fundamentally, our global competitiveness is at stake."

The Department for Transport said legislation for the new rail line would be introduced next year.

The opposition Labour Party backs the new line, though transport spokeswoman Maria Eagle said it must not become "a rich man's toy or simply a business-class service."

It is due to be completed by 2026, with an extension built to more northern cities by 2033.

To appease critics, 8 miles (13 kilometers) of tunnels will be added to the route to spare the countryside.