Page last updated at 15:35 GMT, Friday, 19 February 2010

Tories deny playing politics over high-speed rail plan

Concept image
Work could begin on the new high-speed line by 2017

Shadow transport secretary Theresa Villiers has denied "playing politics" over the construction of a high-speed rail link from London to the Midlands.

She confirmed that the the Tories had turned down an offer to view a copy of government plans for the route.

But she said they were "not going to take Labour's route on trust" and would "reserve the right to look again" at plans once they are made public.

The government said it wanted to build a cross-party consensus on the issue.

Both the Conservatives and Lib Dems want a 250mph rail route instead of a third runway at Heathrow - the government wants one in addition to airport expansion.

'No cosy deal'

The Tories have signalled their support for a high-speed route to include Heathrow, while Labour appears to favour a link or loop to the airport.

A White Paper on the new line linking London with the West Midlands is due next month and will be followed by a public consultation on options for the route.

Ms Villiers told BBC Radio 4's Today programme the paper would be "a very important contribution" to the debate, but the Conservatives did not want it "to close down the options".

"We don't want there to be some cosy deal reached behind closed doors which closes out the communities that may be affected by the route," she said.

"We're not going to take Labour's route on trust. We're going to reserve the right to look again at the route."

She said there were "important areas of consensus" between the parties on the issue but the Conservatives would not look at the report until the public could see it as well.

Final decisions

"We're not playing politics with this issue. It's enormously important and where the route goes will be enormously important in getting the maximum benefit from high-speed rail and also in minimising the impact on local communities affected by the route.

This peculiar decision of the Tories coupled with Osborne's spending cuts strongly suggest that the Tories are trying to kick high-speed rail into the long grass
Norman Baker
Lib Dems

"We want to make sure that all those communities have the right get involved in the debate... before final decisions are taken."

Transport Secretary Lord Adonis said he was "very surprised" at Ms Villiers' comments, as the Conservatives had been "engaging" in the process so far.

"Without political consensus on the principle of high-speed rail, it is unlikely to be taken forward as a national project in the next decade," he said.

"But there will of course be public consultation on any route proposal put forward by the government."

Lib Dem transport spokesman Norman Baker said: "This peculiar decision of the Tories coupled with [shadow chancellor George] Osborne's spending cuts strongly suggest that the Tories are trying to kick high-speed rail into the long grass.

"The Tories can't be trusted with our railways."

Early plans suggest the new line would involve 400-metre long trains, capable of carrying 1,100 passengers, and would come at a cost of £60bn.

If the government accepts plans given to it by HS2, the company set up to deliver the project, building work could begin in 2017, with the first trains running in 2025.

We are still determined to deliver this project in a timely and cost effective way
Theresa Villiers
Shadow transport secretary

Ms Villiers said that if the Tories won the next election, it would take another four to five years of planning and preparation before construction could start on a new line.

That time frame would increase if they decided to rework the route suggested by Labour but she added: "We are still determined to deliver this project and deliver it in a timely and cost effective way."

Prof Stephen Glaister, director of motoring body the RAC Foundation, said: "All parties are advocating HSR [high-speed rail], yet Theresa Villiers is refusing the opportunity to see the official, independent, study into a new line, and the public might well conclude that she is happy to base her party's views more on faith than fact.

"One is left wondering whether she now believes the HS2 report won't be as supportive of a new north-south line as everyone is being led to believe."

Prof Glaister said the White Paper should be published immediately in order to make clear the arguments for and against the new line.

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