NETWORK RAIL deputy chief executive Ian Coucher opened the ICE's High-speed Rail in the UK conference last week by revealing for the first time the operator's position on a possible North-South line.
While definite plans for a highspeed link failed to materialise, Coucher did begin the process by ruling out certain options.
'We must presume that a high speed line will never be built unless there is a robust business case for doing so, ' said Coucher.
'And the starting point should be that this is done without consideration of a public subsidy.'
In other words, Network Rail believes that any high speed line should be funded by ticket sales alone.
Pure market demand, rather any political or social driver, should be the main focus for building a new line, said Coucher.
'Sure there will be many societal benefits, such as environmental, but let's focus on the income, ' he added.
Treating regeneration as a secondary issue leaves little room in Coucher's view for a high-speed line extending to either the South West or the North East.
These areas, he said, would be unable to offer the same number of passengers as would a route between London, Birmingham, Manchester Glasgow and Edinburgh.
'There is a real business case where we can create a big modal shift from air to rail for journeys over 400km, ' said Coucher.
'And where there is significant congestion on the existing high speed routes, that will cause problems in the future, so a movement from these routes can free up capacity that can be filled with other journeys.'
Network Rail has spent £8bn modernising the London to Glasgow route, allowing Pendolino trains to reach speeds of up to 201km/h. But Coucher said that the line was heavily congested and will only become more so in the future.
He added: 'In reality, what we have created for the West Coast is two two-track railways, one traditional, one mainly 125mph[201km/h]. If we build a high speed line along this route, we can essentially use the 125mph two track railway for other traffic.'
Other speakers at the conference disagreed with this proposal.
Steer Davies Gleave and Greengauge 21 director Jim Steer said that regeneration should, in fact, be the driving force behind such a major piece of infrastructure.
'I do not believe that the argument for high speed rail starts with transport, ' he said.
'We have to think forward.
The prospect ahead is for the wider South East to accommodate 2M extra people and there is little sign of the North-South divide closing.'
Scott Wilson rail economist Ernest Godward said the transformation of the East Coast Main Line could have a multiplier effect on a number of regions while still reaching Glasgow and Edinburgh.
Meanwhile UK Ultraspeed chief executive Alan James said that the magnetic levitation system (maglev) that his firm promotes, can reach speeds of up to 500 km/h, and could include both sides of the country on its way from London to Scotland.
'That speed enables us to bring something extraordinary to the UK, ' said James.
'With one route we can serve the east coast and the west coast.'
UK Ultraspeed's route would have a connection with the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (CTRL) and go from London to Glasgow via Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Teeside, Newcastle, and Edinburgh.
With maglev, journey times would be dramatically cut with London to Birmingham taking only 30 minutes and London to Glasgow just two hours and 40 minutes.
The only operational maglev route in existence opened in Shanghai in January 2004 and this is the system's Achilles heel as far as Network Rail is concerned.
Coucher reacted unfavourably to the maglev plan. He said: 'Maglev is as yet unproven on any major scale and there are some distinct disadvantages.
High construction costs, inability to integrate with existing railway infrastructure, which is particularly important if we need to use existing mainline stations for connectivity and to link in with CTRL. And of course the risks of new technology.'
It is more likely that any high speed line would use conventional technology. Coucher used the TGV duplex (double deck) trains as example of the type of eet that would be best suited to any business case that is made for the line.
In response James said: 'A lot of Britain's competitors already have 300km/h lines. Since when is being as good as the French but 30 years late good enough for the British?'
A timeline for the introduction of high speed line also failed to materialise during Coucher's speech, although he did hint at the timescale Network Rail was looking at when he examined possible passenger numbers in 2016 and 2031.
More definite answers on what a British high speed line will look like are likely to emerge once government advisor Rod Eddington completes his review of Britain's transaport needs beyond 2015.
His findings will form part of a long-term transport strategy due to be published next year.