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Theresa Villiers: Our commitment to High Speed Rail will not waver

I want to thank Steer Davies Gleave for hosting this event today. I'd like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to them for the role they have played in making the case for high speed rail and for the top class research they have produced.

I should also emphasise that their work along with that of many other experts from organisations represented here today has played a pivotal role in shaping Opposition policy and giving us the confidence to champion high speed rail in the way we have.

With the hectic lives we lead in modern Britain it is self evident that people travel for a huge range of different reasons. 

To search for new opportunities for a business. To visit family and friends. To get to work. To escape from work.

Our thirst for mobility is one of the most profound cultural and social differences between the lives we lead today and those of past eras.

As late as the 17th and 18th centuries, easier and quicker ways to move around this country were positively discouraged. When stage coaches were first introduced, there was great concern that they would ruin the country and deal a fatal blow to the economy. 

The historian W J Wilshire cites an example from just a generation or so before the railways. The traveller in question made sure that before setting out on the twelve day journey to from Edinburgh to London by coach, he planned the journey months in advance, consulted his lawyer, and wrote his will.

Our not so distant ancestors, writes Wilshire, considered 'the innovator' who proposed ways to save time when travelling 'as either fool or revolutionary.' Then a 4 mile an hour coal train designed by George Stephenson changed all that ushering in a new era of technological and economic expansion and preparing the way for the democratisation of travel. 

<h2>Cultural change</h2>

A glance back at history shows us that faster and better transport links can do more than just make it easier for people to get where they wanted to go.

They can usher in seismic cultural shifts. They can transform people's perception of distance and their comprehension of what is possible and achievable.  The birth of the railways and the industrial revolution generated a revolution in attitude and well as in technology and commerce.

<h2>Our Plans</h2>

Today addressing the brightest and the best of rail industry I am confident that we are about to embark on another transport revolution in Britain.

We have long had the technology and it now looks as if we finally have the political commitment.

And I believe that the Conservative pledge on high speed rail that we made at our party conference a year ago has played a significant part in generating that commitment.

At that conference I announced that we would give the go ahead for a new high speed line between London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds. 

I should emphasise that we see this very much a first step.  Our aspiration is to go further in years to come to a line that stretches north to Newcastle and Scotland and which ultimately expands to connect many of the UK's major cities in a national high speed network. 

Since that announcement, the momentum for high speed rail has been gathering pace in this country.  Now it is a concept which can boast support from politicians across the spectrum. 

Despite the Government's longstanding reluctance, don't forget Ruth Kelly's 30 year strategy for the railways had no place for high speed rail, we now have a Secretary of State who has made his personal enthusiasm for high speed rail clear. 

I welcome the establishment of the HS2 company. I should make it clear that I am grateful both to Sir David Rowlands for keeping me so well informed on its work and to the Secretary of State for not just permitting but actively encouraging him to do so.

Though it remains a matter of regret that HS2's primary remit covers only London to Birmingham when the arguments for taking HSR to the north of England are so clear.

And of course further momentum was produced by the publication of the Network Rail study three weeks ago which confirmed what Conservatives have long been saying. That there is a desperate need for new capacity, particularly on the west coast corridor. That there is tremendous potential for people to switch from road and air to rail. And that the potential economic benefits from high speed rail are immense.

<h2>Affordability</h2>

But of course over recent months I have been asked again and again about the impact of the recession on our plans. 

I can answer that question today. If we are elected, our plans for a new line to Manchester and Leeds will go ahead. We have carefully costed our proposal. We are confident that it's workable and that it's affordable. We stick by our commitment. We will deliver on it.

And on this project as in all our endeavours if we are elected to serve this country as its Government value for money will be a guiding principle.

To those who say it makes no sense to embark on this great task, given the state of the public finances, I have four points to make.

Firstly even with the most optimistic forecasts the planning and preparation needed is likely to take at least 4 to 5 years so the major spend is unlikely to begin before 2015.

Secondly, however great the efforts we make, the period of construction will inevitably be a long one. So the taxpayer's contribution will be stretched over the 12 years it would take to deliver the complete line up to Manchester and Leeds relieving the pressure on budgets in individual years.

Thirdly every credible study indicates that the West Coast Main Line will be full, some time between 2015 and 2020. Expecting aviation or our congested motorways to meet the resulting capacity pressure is neither practical nor environmentally acceptable.

Given the lead times involved in building new railways, we can no longer put off the decision on a new line. Within ten years, extra capacity on the West Coast corridor will not be a "nice to have luxury" it will be a pressing necessity. It would be hugely short sighted to embark on a new conventional line when the cost uplift for high speed rail is probably 30% at most.

And fourthly and finally study after study shows that over time high speed rail will pay for itself not least the report published by Network Rail just a few weeks ago.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is a project that requires us to look beyond recovery from recession and set our sights on preparing for prosperity.

Short term thinking has been at the root of so many of Britain's transport policy failings over the last 50 years. It is one of the main reasons why the rest of Europe has a high speed network and we do not. And I believe, ladies and gentlemen, that must change. It must change if we are to deliver the infrastructure we need to compete in a globalised world economy. And it must change if we are to have any chance whatsoever of averting catastrophic climate change.

<h2>Environmental issues - Air to Rail Switch</h2>

The pressing need for action on climate change provides an additional suite of reasons why we should not let the recession derail our efforts to ensure that this country finally starts catching up with Europe's high speed rail revolution.

Last September when I made my announcement on high speed rail, I received some flack for the ambitious claims I made on the potential for air to rail switch.

Now those claims are almost becoming the establishment view with none other than the Secretary of State himself backing my assertion that high speed rail has the potential to capture the lion's share of aviation traffic from London to destinations such as Manchester, Leeds, Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam and Rotterdam.

I gather he's even prepared to add Cologne to the list a realistic possibility with the last gap in the high speed rail link between that city and Brussels connected up in June of this year. And I should also say that I do not accept the argument that interlining flights are not substitutable. Get the connections right between HSR and our airports and there is plenty of scope for rail to capture a share of interlining journeys as well.

So high speed rail if well connected to Heathrow has the potential to release thousands of landing slots at our nation's busiest and most important airport making it less overcrowded, more resilient and freeing up space for long haul routes to key business destinations.

In my view those facts alone leave the case for a third runway holed below the water-line.

<h2>Regional links</h2>

And shifting people from the plane on to the train can have effects that go beyond the environmental and economic. Just as advances in transport technology in previous centuries have driven cultural as well as economic change so will high speed rail.

When Barack Obama sought to sell his vision of a new high speed train network to the American public he used Spain as an example. And when you look at the Spanish experience with HSR you start to understand why he chose that country rather than longer established players like France or Japan.

In Spain, as in Britain, rapid transport had cautious beginnings.  The inaugural journey on the first Spanish railway, was marked with a ceremony of "blessing the engine" by His Excellency the Cardinal Archbishop of Toledo. This, my researches tell me, took place in the presence of the Court, Cortes, distinguished nobles, troops and halberdiers and three miles of spectators. The following day ... peasants on the road seeing the trains travelling at the unheard-of velocity of fifteen miles an hour ... apparently fell to their knees and crossed themselves until the monster was out of sight.

In modern times, Spain's AVE high speed rail network hasn't just breathed new life in the cities it serves it has even started to break down intense regional rivalries, some of which date back centuries. So much so that the terrorist group, ETA, said it would target anyone involved in construction of a high speed link between the Basque region and Madrid. It even went so far as to detonate a bomb at the headquarters of one of the contractors working on the project.

Well thankfully our regional rivalries aren't as acute in this country. But the impact of HSR in Britain could still be profound and far reaching.

The option to hop on a train in Birmingham and arrive in Brussels in less than three hours brings the Midlands a huge step closer to Europe and to the European markets that the region's many entrepreneurs wish to serve. 

And the impact of dramatically shrinking journey times, not just to the capital but between cities like Birmingham and Manchester or Manchester and Leeds, as the Conservatives have pledged to do should not be underestimated.

It could create whole new economic alignments. The scope for job creation and growth is obvious as illustrated by what happened in Lille a city whose prospects were transformed out of all recognition by its inclusion in the European high speed network.

This kind of connectivity could do so much to knit together the economies of our major cities and regions both to one another and to the capital. In so doing it should ensure that real progress is made in addressing the perennial imbalance of prosperity between the south east and the rest of the UK. 

And I should emphasise how much I welcome the launch today of HSR//UK. I am sure will provide an effective and energetic voice to make the case for the roll out of high speed rail across the country. And I expect it to keep up the pressure on all of us in the political establishment to make high speed rail a reality.

<h2>Conclusion</h2>

A room full of rail experts perhaps understands better than any other group the magnitude of the challenge we face if we are to deliver the high speed network to which we aspire. 

We all know that there will be setbacks, rows and dramas before the first high speed trains are powering through the country at nearly 300 kilometres per hour. But what we can finally say with real confidence is that we will do this.

It is no longer a case of whether but when the UK has its own high speed rail network. Over the last 12 months, the political class has finally answered the high speed rail question and we have answered yes.

Gentlemen, it was a British engineer who gave the world the railways.  Now Britain lags behind a lengthening list of countries across Europe and Asia who are harnessing the benefits of high speed rail.

It is high time we started catching up with the rest of the world. I am convinced that if we are going to build a greener and more competitive Britain we need to rise to the high speed rail challenge.

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