Rail plea from business chiefs

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PLANS for a high speed rail link between London and Sheffield have won the backing of 69 leading business figures and captains of industry.

In a high-profile joint letter, the signatories, including airline boss Willie Walsh, say the £30 billion project will give the northern economy a “much needed boost” and “reduce journey times”.

Government plans would see a Y-shaped super fast rail network capable of carrying 250mph trains between London and Birmingham and then on to Sheffield and Leeds via one spur and Manchester on another.

It would allow a journey time between Sheffield and the capital of less than 80 minutes - although the project is not likely to be completed until around 2032.

Ministers will next week launch a “wide-ranging” consultation on the plans, which have faced fierce criticism from local activist groups in the Chilterns and along the initial route between London and Birmingham.

Professor David Begg, a former government advisor who organised yesterday’s letter, said, “For too long the debate on high speed rail has been dominated by local opponents but many in business want it developed as soon as possible.“

Other business chiefs signing the letter, which appeared in a national newspaper, include Ian King, chief executive of BAE Systems, Philip Green, chief executive of United Utilities, Andy Street, managing director of John Lewis, Dalton Philips, chief executive of Morrisons and Willie Walsh chief executive of the International Airlines Group.

Professor Philip Jones, Vice Chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University has also signed the letter, along with Prof Keith Glaister, Dean of the Management School at the University of Sheffield and Yuri Matishen, President of the Sheffield Chamber of Commerce.

However, a leading transport campaign group warns high speed rail must not lead to less investment in the rest of the network.

Campaign for Better Transport director Richard Hebditch said: “We’re very worried ministers will need to cut budgets elsewhere to pay for HSR. That could mean even steeper fare rises and cuts in local rail services.

“And the best way for rail to offer a greener alternative is to electrify much more of the network but plans for electrification could be put back as HSR eats up all the funding.”

Transport Secretary Philip Hammond has argued the project will create 8,000 construction jobs and 30,000 more indirect jobs.

But Hilary Wharf of the HS2 Action Alliance pressure group claims the government’s economic case is flawed and officials are being optimistic in predicting a trebling of passenger numbers.