Transport Secretary Philip Hammond has launched a consultation on Government plans to "redraw" Britain's economic map by building a £32 billion high-speed rail (HSR) network.
Announcing the five-month consultation into the proposals for the HS2 line, initially linking London with Birmingham, Mr Hammond said the country faced a "once in a lifetime" opportunity to create new jobs and prosperity.
Speaking at Birmingham's International Convention Centre, the minister claimed the controversial project would deliver £44 billion of benefits to the UK economy.
Urging all interested parties to have their say on the plans, which would eventually link the Midlands with the North of England, Mr Hammond said: "This will be one of the most extensive and potentially far-reaching government consultations in history. We must invest in Britain’s future. High-speed rail offers us a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform the way we travel in the 21st century and would help us build a modern economy fit for the future.
It is envisaged that 14 trains or more an hour will run on the HS2 high-speed rail project, each with up to 1,100 seats. The new HSR network could shift as many as six million air trips and nine million road trips a year to rail.
The Government argues that with long-distance services transferred to the new high-speed network, large amounts of space would be freed up on the West Coast, East Coast and Midland Main Lines, allowing for an expansion of commuter, regional and freight services on these lines.
Construction of any new network would be expected to begin early in the next Parliament, with the line to the West Midlands completed by 2026 and the legs to Manchester and Leeds finished in 2032-2033.
The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) described the consultation process as "a complete train wreck".
Ralph Smyth, the CPRE's senior transport campaigner, said: "The Government has been so focused on trying to catch up and overtake the French on high-speed rail that they have failed to ensure the public get their fair say."
He added that the consultation amounted to "a single route option, which the Government has already made up its mind to favour", that would be followed "by a Parliamentary petitioning procedure that has changed little since the days of 19th century railway barons".