At the end of February, the government launched a public consultation on building a new national high speed rail system.
Not just any consultation - but one of the biggest and potentially most far reaching consultations in government history.
Its size and complexity reflects the importance of high speed rail to Britain’s future.
For the proposed scheme not only promises to revolutionise intercity travel in the 21st century.
It is also a once-in-a-generation chance to bring our leading cities closer together, to reshape our economic geography and to deliver the growth, jobs and investment that will be crucial to the future prosperity of this country.
And I mean the prosperity of the whole country.
High speed rail is not only good for Britain, and for the cities it directly connects.
It’s also good for the people and the businesses of Glasgow and Scotland.
Faster journeys. Better connectivity. And a step change in transport capacity on major routes.
So we are here today (17 March 2011) to take the debate on high speed to Scotland.
To present the facts. To set out the arguments. But also to acknowledge the challenges ahead, so people in Scotland can make their own minds up about a scheme of huge consequence, that has the potential to deliver radical long-term change to this country.
North versus south
Despite the growth and diversification that cities like Glasgow have experienced in recent years, the fact remains that the economies of Scotland and north England continue to lag behind the south east.
Over the past decade, around half the UK’s economic growth has been concentrated in London and the surrounding regions. If other parts of the country had been able to match this rate of growth, the UK would have been £38 billion better off.
If we want sustainable growth, we need it to be geographically balanced - with a more competitive, prosperous Scotland playing its part in the success of the British economy.
And one of the most effective ways to balance growth is through infrastructure investment.
Transport infrastructure, in particular, has a vital role to play - providing the crucial links on busy intercity routes that enable businesses to operate efficiently and profitably.
But just as good transport enables economic growth, bad, congested transport acts as an obstacle to growth.
That is why we need to ensure that we have the capacity on our key transport arteries to meet rising demand in the future.
Between 1994 and 2009, for example, the number of miles travelled by rail passengers in Britain soared - from 18 billion to 32 billion.
And demand is predicted to continue rising.
Passengers travelling to or from Scotland on the West and East Coast Main Lines will already know how overcrowded those services can become - particularly as they approach London. And motorists here will know how congestion on the road and motorway network has made journeys less reliable.
Ignoring the problem is simply not an option.
Severe overcrowding on the railway would spread throughout the day; and the performance of the network would deteriorate. More passengers would be forced onto short-haul air services or onto the road network, generating ever-rising levels of carbon.
Intercity travel in Britain would become increasingly slow and unreliable, further undermining the economies of our major cities and regions.
High speed rail
The evidence from abroad is that high speed rail is the only effective, sustainable, answer to our inter-city transport challenges. Many of our competitors already recognise the huge benefits that high speed rail can bring, and are pressing ahead with ambitious plans.
Across Europe and Asia, high speed has delivered more capacity, reliability, comfort and accessibility for travellers.
What’s more, high speed has delivered for their economies - creating the jobs and regeneration that we could expect to see in this country if a new national high speed network goes ahead.
And it has helped reduce carbon emissions by encouraging people off cars and planes onto trains. Flights between Paris and Brussels, for example, have all but come to an end; and air traffic between Madrid and Barcelona is in dramatic decline since high speed lines were built in Spain.
So it is clear: Britain simply cannot afford to be left behind.
That is why the government has announced its plan for a Y-shaped national high speed rail network, linking London to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds, with additional stations serving South Yorkshire and the East Midlands.
Connections to the West Coast and East Coast Main Lines would enable through-running high speed rail services to reach Glasgow and Edinburgh via the conventional network.
Journey times from Scotland’s major cities to London would be cut to around 3 hours 30 minutes - an hour less than many of today’s services - and on modern, high capacity trains.
And by linking up with Heathrow and the Channel Tunnel, we would massively improve international connectivity for the whole of the UK.
When it comes to modal shift, it is worth looking in more detail at the numbers.
In 2009, there were around seven million passenger trips by rail and air combined between London and Edinburgh and Glasgow.
In 2009, only around 20% of these trips were made by rail, whereas, on the basis of our analysis, with the Y-shaped network in place, high speed rail could capture around half of this market.
Transferring long distance services to the high speed line would also release capacity on other major rail routes, allowing substantially improved commuter services and new opportunities for freight between Scotland and England.
High speed rail would generate benefits of around £44 billion over 60 years, that it would support thousands of jobs and regenerate inner cities.
But it would also do much more by, for example, harnessing improved city-to-city links and increasing business productivity.
Of course, the consultation is an opportunity for everyone to have their say about our proposals for high speed.
I know that many people have concerns.
And that is why we have gone to very great lengths to mitigate the environmental impacts of the line.
Already we have altered half the original proposals for a London-West Midlands line to reduce potential local environmental impacts. And in the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, we have made sure that all but 1.2 miles would be in tunnel, cutting, or close to the A413 road corridor
So we are listening, we take people’s views seriously, and we will take them fully into account during the consultation.
That is what today is all about. This seminar is just one of a number of seminars we’re holding up and down the country - and we are also holding a series of roadshows for local people along the line of the recommended route.
Scotland is vital to this project because HS2 would deliver significant benefits for travellers from north of the border - speeding up journey times and providing new capacity on routes into London.
And the government’s proposed network could also provide a strong foundation for subsequent expansion in the longer-term - reducing journey times to Glasgow and Edinburgh further.
I know that your aspiration is for the network to reach Scotland directly. That is something that the Secretary of State has said that we will look at in detail with the Scottish government and on which we welcome your views as part of the consultation.
So we need to hear what you have to say.
No final decisions will be taken until everyone has had the chance to do so.
But if like me you regard high speed rail as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to deliver transformational change on a national scale.
If you are fed up with short term fixes and desperate for the sort of transport system that other countries now take for granted.
If you realise that Scotland and the whole of the UK stand to benefit directly from our plans, then I then I ask you to speak up in favour of this project as the consultation proceeds. We need your support.
Now is the time to make your voices heard: passengers, local communities, businesses, environmental groups and the railway industry.
We will analyse your contributions, and publish our response, setting out our proposed way forward, in December this year.
I hope this will be the start of a process that delivers a modern, world class transport system for Britain - and for Scotland.