Page last updated at 09:50 GMT, Sunday, 1 February 2009

Dawning of rail's new golden age?

By Nick Garnett
BBC Radio 5 Live

A Maglev train
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As well as announcing plans for a third runway at Heathrow, the government says it wants to build a high speed rail network linking London and Scotland.

Governments always want to leave their mark for future generations and the Transport Minister Lord Adonis is not shy of thinking big.

"Big projects aren't beyond us," he said.

"We haven't built a major railway since the Victorians so showing we are capable of building a big project of this kind would be a sign of real self-confidence and show that we still have the capacity to transform life in this country for the better."

According to Jim Steer of the rail industry group Greengauge 21, which has already published its own plans for the line, there has to be a definite commitment on behalf of the government.

"It needs to be thought about in the same way as the decision we took to build a national motorway network. This is about creating a modern reliable transport system for the country," he said.

A number of plans are on the table.

Of course they could do it - but I don't see it happening in my day
Fred Carter
Standedge Visitor Centre guide

Some propose lines that link London with Birmingham. Others go further - to Edinburgh and Glasgow.

One wants to use old railway lines to keep costs down, whilst another is looking at using "Maglev" technology where trains hover above the ground using magnetic forces.

But the first decision taken by the government, that the line should go up the west coast of Britain, has saddened Sheffield City Council leader Cllr Paul Scriven.

He says the government should consider the case for two lines to be built at the same time.

"The government's got to realise that if it's serious about the economy then it's not about the East or the West," he said.

"It should be investing in both."

A train journey from Manchester to London currently takes two hours. In the future that could be cut to 80 minutes.

Fred Carter on how the first tunnel was built

But there are concerns that city centre congestion in Manchester could put people off travelling from there and some are pressing for any new rail line to bypass the city centre completely and stop at Manchester Airport instead.

The North West Rail Campaign was set up and paid for by Greater Manchester's local authorities, which collectively own the airport.

Its director Roger Jones said: "There's a huge bottleneck around Manchester and the thought of putting any new train line into the city centre when we've already got this huge congestion problem.... well, I don't think that would be a runner."

Many towns and villages will be affected by construction work for the new railway if it is built.

Bicester, in North Oxfordshire, is half way between London and Birmingham.

One of the proposed routes will run close to the town, although the trains won't stop there.

David Watts, a 44-year-old engineer from the town, thinks the plans are a wasted opportunity.

"Loads of disruption with nothing to show at the end of it," he said.

"The crazy thing is that it's going to take me longer to get into London than someone living in Manchester."

The group behind the plan, Greengauge 21, says the main advantage of its scheme is that the intended route runs alongside existing railways, cutting costs dramatically.

It claims the bill for the first phase of the route would be around 11bn.

Not cheap

There is considerable political consensus for the new line.

The Liberal-Democrats say it's more environmentally-friendly than air travel, while the Scottish Parliament is pushing for improved transport links and the Welsh Assembly says cutting journey times is economically vital.

The Conservatives not only want to link London to Manchester, they want to go further - to Leeds.

Heathrow airport
Conservatives see high-speed rail as an alternative to airport expansion

But what about the Pennines? Only a handful of tunnels have ever been built through the hills, and for good reason.

The first, the Standedge Tunnel for canal boats, was started in 1794 and took 17 years to build.

Fred Carter, a guide at the tunnel's visitor centre, said: "Most of the rock they'll have to dig through is Millstone Grit.

"It took 3,500 men to dig it and, yes, of course they could do it. But I don't see it happening in my day."

New tunnels, new lines and new trains are not cheap.

But the network is busier than ever; the trains, older than they should be; and Gordon Brown thinks one way to see us out of recession is to spend money.

Perhaps Lord Adonis is right. It might just be the time to think big and build big too.

Are we about to witness the dawn of a new age of the train?

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