MINISTERS have been challenged to be ambitious and back a new high-speed train link to the region as they prepare to unveil their plans for the railways.
The call from business chiefs comes amid speculation the Government will today publish its short and longer-term rail plans, which could outline support for a high-speed connection between London, the North-East and Scotland.
But the cross-London £3.5bn Thameslink 2000 scheme could instead get the go-ahead, along with improvements to Birmingham New Street and Reading stations.
Ministers could also unveil plans for an extra 300 carriages in addition to a previously-announced 1,000 new coaches as well as saying how much cash will be available for the rail network.
North-East Chamber of Commerce head of policy Ross Smith said: “Over that timeframe, the Government has to be ambitious.
“That has to include a high-speed rail system that would at least bring us to the level that countries on the Continent have been at for several decades now. If that is going to happen, it has to come up the East Coast.”
He said backing for Maglev trains, which can travel at 311mph, would be most welcome amid claims the technology could transform the region’s economy by slashing journey times, for example, to just 100 minutes from Newcastle to London. Mr Smith also said action over capacity was needed in the short term, not least to ensure existing inter-city services to London were maintained and local commuter links improved.
Blaydon MP Dave Anderson said: “I hope that the high-speed rail does come through because if it doesn’t, we are going to be left even more behind than we already are. And if we have one for the west side of the country and not one this side, it will make matters even worse.”
He said a high-speed link would help make inroads into Europe and it was worth exploring Maglev.
Campaigner Ian Walker, of Railfuture North East, said capacity could be improved through longer trains and platforms as well as reopening the Leamside line from Pelaw in Gateshead to south Durham.
He said there would have to be a decision at some stage about the replacement for high-speed trains on the East Coast Main Line, while new high-speed links were a bigger issue and options needed to be investigated.
Consumer watchdog Passenger Focus said high-speed rail was a good idea, but services had to be strengthened. That included addressing overcrowding on peak-time routes in the North-East.
It also said booked saver tickets must continue to be protected from huge above-inflation rises.
Last night, the Department for Transport said it could not comment and people would have to wait for the release of the document.