The Channel Tunnel rail link is Britain's only high-speed line
Rail passengers could speed between London and Scotland in just two and a half hours, if the government heeds calls for a new network of high-speed lines across Britain.
Ministers should start planning for 200mph trains which would shrink the map of the UK, says top government adviser Professor David Begg, chairman of the Commission for Integrated Transport.
Journeys between London and Birmingham would take less than an hour, and London and Newcastle less than two hours, using trains carrying nearly 50% more passengers than at present.
A report from the commission warns that existing intercity routes will run out of capacity by 2015, forcing rail companies to price passengers off trains and onto already overcrowded roads.
The commission's support for a high-speed network will embarrass the Transport Secretary, Alistair Darling.
HIGH SPEED JOURNEY TIMES
London to Birmingham - 55 minutes
London to Manchester - under 1 hour 30 minutes
London to Leeds - under 1 hour 30 minutes
London to Newcastle - 2 hours
London to Edinburgh - 2 hours 30 minutes
London to Glasgow - 3 hours
He has already prevented the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) from publishing its own report in favour of a new fast route between London and Scotland.
The report concluded that the economic return would be "very substantial indeed", but the government is deeply worried about the £36bn cost.
The ban has infuriated SRA chairman Richard Bowker and now seems to have provoked Professor Begg, also a non-executive board member of the SRA, into taking up the case.
A new London to Scotland high-speed line could carry up to 220 trains a day, more than twice the number possible on the upgraded west coast main line, says the commission.
It would have 50% more capacity than the M1 or M6 motorways, and achieve journeys in a third of the time possible by road.
"This isn't just desirable to shrink journey times, it's essential if we are to deal with capacity constraints on the existing network", said Professor Begg.
"We can't simply price people off the railways as a way of solving overcrowding."
High-speed trains would be most effective over journeys between 180 and 360 miles, roughly the distances between London and Leeds, and London and Edinburgh.
But the commission warns that, crucially, there would have to be cuts in the cost of new lines, by reducing planning times, reviewing safety rules, and building in stages.
New routes could be built alongside existing railways or motorways, but would probably share existing tracks into city centres.
Britain failed to follow Japan and many European countries in building high-speed railways in the 1970s and 1980s because the existing network had spare capacity, making the economic case weaker.
Professor Begg: High-speed lines "an idea whose time has come"
But passengers numbers have soared since privatisation, making fast lines "an idea whose time has come".
"Our best comparison is with the Japanese", says Professor Begg.
"They have similar geography, population density and land costs. They shift huge numbers of people along their rail corridors. We could do the same, dramatically eating into our domestic air market."
Japanese bullet trains travel at up to 186mph (300km/h) and can carry 1,600 passengers.
The economic benefits of a UK network would outweigh the costs by up to three to one, says the commission.
Proposals from Alistair Darling for a national road charging scheme in the next 10 to 15 years "would make high-speed rail even more attractive".
But Shadow Transport Secretary Damian Green said: "These are interesting ideas but sadly premature given the current state of the railways.
"Passengers are understandably more worried about whether their daily train
is going to run on time than on what will be happening in ten years time."
So far the Channel tunnel rail link, which carries Eurostar trains at up to 186mph, is Britain's only high-speed line.
The first section as far as north Kent opened last year. The second section into London St Pancras is due to be ready in 2007.