BRITISH Prime Minister David Cameron today insisted new high-speed rails links to the north of England will go ahead despite a backlash as the routes were unveiled.
The Prime Minister said extending the already-planned London to Birmingham HS2 line as far as Manchester and Leeds would "spread wealth and prosperity" around the country.
But some Conservative backbenchers have attacked today's announcement and warned they would not support "flawed" government policy.
The Stop HS2 campaign has also challenged claims that the extended rail links will be good for the economies of the Midlands and the North.
Ministers are also braced for fierce opposition to the plans from rural communities in areas affected by the plans.
But Mr Cameron told Sky News: "You have to plan for these things. High Speed 1, linking us to the Channel Tunnel was a long time in planning but it is good to get on with this now. And, yes, these are difficult economic times, but I think that is precisely the time you should be planning for the future, working out how we link up the cities of our country, how we reduce journey times, how we spread wealth and prosperity around the country.
"We do need to rebalance the economy, it has been too dominated by the south and by certain industries and high speed rail will really help to create a better balanced economy."
Pressed on whether Tory opponents could force him into a U-turn, Mr Cameron insisted the scheme would go ahead.
"This is going to happen. I have been a strong supporter right from the start, in Opposition."
The Manchester and Leeds extensions are designed to cut journey times, ease overcrowding and boost regional business. Officials say the £32.7 billion project will create at least 100,000 jobs.
But Penny Gaines, who chairs the Stop HS2 campaign, said the plans were flawed and should be dropped.
She said: "In reality, high-speed rail projects elsewhere have sucked jobs to the capital cities, away from the regions. HS2 focuses on long-distance journeys, when the main passenger growth is in regional and local areas.
"Stop HS2 is firmly of the opinion that the whole HS2 project is fundamentally flawed. It should be cancelled as soon as possible, so that we can concentrate on developing the transport infrastructure that will bring more benefits to more people than a fast train for fat cats."
Andrew Bridgen, Conservative MP for North West Leicestershire, indicated he was likely to rebel when plans eventually go before the Commons.
"We are going to have all of the pain and none of the gain. It cuts my constituency north to south, destroys lots of countryside and puts a fear and planning paralysis to a lot of my communities," he told BBC Breakfast.
"I was elected by the people of North West Leicestershire to represent the people of North West Leicestershire, not to blindly row in behind flawed government policies that have no help at all to my constituency and will cause a lot of damage."
The Department for Transport said there would be five stops on the 211-mile Y-shaped extension northwards from Birmingham - scheduled to be completed in 2032, six years after the first phase:
:: Manchester - alongside the existing Piccadilly station;
:: Manchester Airport - interchange by the M56 between Warburton Green and Davenport Green;
:: East Midlands - at Toton, between Nottingham and Derby and one mile from the M1;
:: Sheffield - at Meadowhall shopping centre;
:: Leeds - at New Lane in the South bank area connected to the main station by walkway.
There will also be a "dedicated link" alongside the high-speed line at Crewe to link up with standard trains - reducing journey times to Liverpool and Glasgow.
But a proposed spur to Heathrow has been put on hold pending the results of Sir Howard Davies' review of future airport capacity - which is not due to give a final report until the summer of 2015.
Instead passengers heading to the world's busiest airport will have to change onto the new London east-west Crossrail service for an 11-minute transfer to terminals.
The Department for Transport said the journey from Manchester to Birmingham would be reduced to 41 minutes and from Manchester to London to 1 hour 8 minutes - almost half the present times.
Leeds will be 57mins away from Birmingham compared to 1hr 58 mins today, and 1hr 22mins away from London Euston, down from 2hrs 12mins - official projections say.
Critics have suggested that siting the Sheffield station outside the city centre - requiring passengers to take a connecting train of around 7-12mins - will mean standard trains will get people there more quickly.
The move has been widely welcomed by business, which called on the Government to follow it up with funding for further infrastructure links within the regions.
Chancellor George Osborne conceded the decision would be "controversial" but insisted the proposals were an "engine for growth".
He told BBC Breakfast: "It is a controversial decision, because building anything in this country there are going to be people who object to it.
"But I think the economic benefits to all communities are pretty compelling - whether it's the fact that there's going to be a station in the East Midlands or the fact we are going to have stations at Manchester airport and a rail hub in Crewe... and also eight of our 10 largest cities in Britain are going to be connected.
"And it's not just about cutting journey times - although it does cut in half the journey time from Manchester to London - it's also about the new stations, the prosperity that's going to come, the jobs that are going to be created around this infrastructure."
Mr Cameron visited Leeds earlier to hold a Cabinet meeting.
Opening the meeting at the Leeds City Museum, the Prime Minister spoke of the benefits the new rail links would bring to the country.
Mr Cameron said the high-speed rail would "radically reduce journey times" and was a "vital part of economic regeneration and the future of our country".
Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin told the meeting: "I think it was important to be made very clear that high-speed rail wasn't just something for Birmingham or London, it was actually for the North, for the rest of the country."
Mr McLoughlin echoed Mr Cameron in telling the Cabinet that high-speed rail was of vital importance for regeneration.
He added that consultation on the proposals would open later in the year and the Government would listen to any problems and make any necessary alterations to the plans.
Mr Osborne was warned he faces protests from constituents in his Cheshire constituency of Tatton.
Michael Fabricant, Tory MP for Lichfield, which will be affected by HS2, told BBC Radio 4's World at One programme: "The problem is that this route plunges through countryside which is at the moment unblemished by either major roads or by rail."
He added: "Now that they are opening up the route to Manchester and to Leeds there will be people along that route, Members of Parliament, who will be lobbied very heavily indeed by their constituents, including, incidentally, George Osborne, who hasn't yet had this problem.
"I believe the route is going to go through Tatton. He will experience for himself, as will all those other MPs, precisely how strongly people feel about their environment being blighted by HS2."