Network Rail has today unveiled plans for five new rail lines, raising the prospect of the UK building a high-speed rail network to rival those found on the continent.
The company said it would undertake a review of the business case for building five new routes to the north and west of London as it seek to bolster the capacity of the UK's rail network.
"By 2025 many lines will be full up, especially those running to and from the north and west of London," said Network Rail's chief executive Iain Coucher. " This will happen even after we have implemented the investment to boost current capacity."
He added that with rail travel growing in popularity, the company had an obligation to explore the means of boosting capacity in the medium and long term.
According to Network Rail, passenger numbers have soared 40 per cent over the past decade to 1.13bn journeys a year while the amount of rail freight has increased 60 per cent over the same period. A spokesman for the company said that it expects similar growth rates over the past decade driven in part by growing environmental concerns and the increased cost of motoring.
"The main driver for the new lines is the need to increase capacity, but they would definitely have a beneficial impact on the environment as rail is proven to have lower carbon emissions than other forms of transport," he said, adding that as well as enabling more intercity journeys along the new lines, the proposed expansion of the network would also free up existing lines to accommodate more regional and freight services.
Government figures show that average carbon emissions per passenger mile stand at 5.2kg for train journeys compared with 36.6kg for car journeys. Meanwhile, Eurostar has claimed that its service to Paris and Brussels results in just one tenth of the carbon emissions associated with the equivalent short-haul flight.
The Network Rail spokesman said that one of the options being explored by the company is the deployment of the same high-speed rail lines used by the Eurostar and found across the continent.
"High-speed lines are more expensive, but we will be undertaking the necessary cost-benefit analysis to see if they make sense," he said.
The move was broadly welcomed by environmentalists who praised the move as a potentially important step towards a lower carbon transport network.
"A fast and affordable electric high-speed rail system, powered by renewable energy, could provide a zero carbon alternative to short-haul flights and help get people out of their cars," said Friends of the Earth’s transport campaigner Richard Dyer. "Britain's transport system needs a new direction. It must play its part in tackling climate change and weaning the nation off our addiction to expensive and insecure oil supplies."
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