By Max Clarke

Transport Secretary Philip Hammond today confirmed that the Government’s proposed high speed rail network - which would link London to the West Midlands, Manchester and Leeds - will include a direct link to Heathrow and to the European high speed rail network.

Mr Hammond also published details of the Government's proposed route for the first phase of the project, a new line between London and Birmingham. After visiting the route and consulting with local people, Mr Hammond today revealed that the proposed route has been significantly redrawn to incorporate changes to over half its length.

The completed 'Y'-shaped network would bring the West Midlands within about half an hour of London and would allow journey times of around 80 minutes from Leeds and Manchester to the capital. Connections onto existing tracks would also be included, allowing direct high speed train services to be operated to cities including Glasgow, Edinburgh, Newcastle and Liverpool. A direct link to Britain's existing high speed line, High Speed 1 - which runs from London St Pancras to the channel tunnel - would allow travel from cities along the new high speed line to the continent, while construction of a direct link to Heathrow airport - to be built at the same time as the lines to Leeds and Manchester - would enable direct high speed services to run to and from the airport, providing an attractive alternative for many short-haul air journeys. In addition, the released capacity on the West Coast Mainline would offer the possibility of more frequent, fast commuter services from places such as Milton Keynes and Coventry.

Philip Hammond said:

"High speed rail is so important because it has the potential to transform the way Britain works and competes in the 21st century. Political and business leaders from across the country are clear that a rail network of this kind has huge potential to reshape our economic geography for the better.

"But I also know there will be less welcome impacts of this new line in some parts of the countryside. Since taking this job I have reviewed all the possible route options in detail as well as travelling the length of the proposed line to talk directly to local people. As a result, I have made a number of changes to the route published by the previous Government. The route I am publishing today differs from the previous one for around 65 out of the 127 miles of its length.

"We are continuing to look at additional mitigation measures to lessen the impact of the line on those communities which it passes nearest to, as well as considering innovative options for providing assistance to those who may be affected by the proposed line. I hope the communities affected will play a full part in the consultation process."

Since his appointment as Transport Secretary, Philip Hammond has visited the full length of the proposed route for a new London to Birmingham line, meeting local residents and MPs. As a result, he commissioned significant additional work to reduce the line's local impacts and this has resulted in changes to the proposed route. Maps of the new route have been published today and full public consultation on the route - as well as on the Government's broader strategy on high speed rail - will begin in February 2011. Significant improvements to the route previously published have been made, including at the following locations:

• At Primrose Hill in London, where work to identify the most appropriate locations for the necessary vent shafts has shifted the proposed tunnel, and the vent shafts themselves, to the north, locating them alongside the existing railway.

• Between Amersham and Wendover, where a green bridge and a green tunnel have been incorporated into the route design to reduce its visual impact and avoid severance of public rights of way.

• At Hartwell House in Buckinghamshire, where by moving the alignment away from this historic property, HS2 Ltd have been able to ensure that the line would not be visible from the House itself and that additional earthworks and planting can be undertaken to further reduce its visual and noise impacts.

• At Edgcote House to the north of Aylesbury, where HS2 Ltd have made adjustments which move the proposed line further away from the property and its gardens, without increasing its impact on nearby villages.

• At Lichfield where an improved alignment would move the line further from the city, whilst avoiding any increased impact on other local communities.

The Government proposes to secure the powers to deliver the high speed network by means of a Hybrid Bill. Depending on the outcome of consultation and Parliamentary timescales and approval, enabling works for the initial London-Birmingham phase should be able to begin in 2015 with the high speed network opening in phases from 2026.