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New calls for high-speed rail link to run to Scotland

SCOTTISH business leaders made renewed calls for a high-speed rail link to be extended to include Scotland after ministers approved construction of the route between London and Birmingham.

The Scottish Government said it was "disappointed" Transport Secretary Justine Greening's announcement, backing one of the most ambitious and controversial investments in the UK's railway network since Victorian times, did not include a commitment to bring high-speed rail to Scotland.

Giving the long-awaited go-ahead to the first phase of the £32 billion infrastructure project, Ms Greening said it would provide 26,000 extra passenger seats an hour on trains travelling at up to 250mph when completed in 2026.

Facing down critics of the controversial scheme, Ms Greening said there were "no credible alternatives" for adding capacity to Britain's congested railway network in order to meet future demand for rail travel.

Industry studies have suggested the West Coast Main Line, which connects London Euston to Glasgow and Edinburgh, is rapidly approaching its limit and that overcrowding will become a significant problem towards the end of the decade, forcing more people off trains and on to congested motorways.

Scottish business leaders called on Ms Greening to ensure a new route is built north of the Border in a bid to prevent Scotland being left at a competitive disadvantage to the Midlands and cities in the north of England.

A consultation on a second phase of High Speed Two (HS2), which will see the initial 140-mile route extended along two branch lines to Manchester and Leeds, will be launched in 2014 and a route chosen by the end of the year, with construction due to finish by 2032.

However, Scots are unlikely to see significant benefits initially, with the first phase of HS2 shaving half-an-hour off journeys between London and both Glasgow and Edinburgh, which currently take four hours and 30 minutes, and the second phase giving a further half-hour saving.

The Scottish Government signalled its intention to fund a route north of the Border – which could bring journeys from Glasgow and Edinburgh to London down below three hours – in December but this is subject to an agreement being reached with Westminster during phase two of the project.

The announcement was broadly welcomed by business groups, rail companies and trade unions. However, Jerry Marshall, chairman of Agahst (Action Groups Against High Speed Two), said the project was a "disaster waiting to happen". He added: "HS2 will cost every household in Britain £1700 and, based on Government figures, will never pay for itself."

Lesley Sawers, chief executive of the Scottish Council for Development and Industry (SCDI), said: "To fully realise the benefits of high-speed rail to businesses and the economy, we now want to see the commitment to high- speed rail extended to Scotland.

"The benefits of high-speed rail increase significantly once the network is extended to Scotland. SCDI's survey of leading Scottish businesses demonstrated overwhelming support for high-speed rail connections, particularly for the reduced journey times, increased productivity and potential to travel by rail rather than air."

Labour, which first unveiled the blueprint for yesterday's high-speed rail plans in 2009, has subsequently questioned its own route plans but backed Ms Greening's decision yesterday.

Transport Minister Keith Brown welcomed the UK Government's commitment to work with Scottish ministers to develop a high-speed rail link north of the Border but added that Scotland must be represented "from the very earliest stages of the legislative process".

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