LONDON (Reuters) - The British government will back the development of an east-west high speed rail link between cities in northern England, Prime Minister David Cameron said on Sunday.
The link, dubbed High Speed 3, was among options highlighted in a report on improving rail links across the midlands and north of England published on Sunday by the chairman of Britain's north-south High Speed 2 (HS2) rail project.
"Improving connectivity and reducing journey times between our great northern cities is a crucial part of our long term economic plan for the north to boost businesses and create more jobs and security," Cameron said in a statement.
The proposed link could cut the journey time between the cities of Leeds and Manchester to as little as 26 minutes, from an average of 55 minutes now.
An interim report looking at the options, costs and a timetable for the east-west high-speed rail connection will be produced in March next year, the government said.
HS2 Chairman David Higgins said reducing journey times between major cities was a "strategic necessity" for the future of the British economy that applied equally to east-west links as to those between the north and London.
"Faster, more reliable, less congested services will make it easier for individual cities to pool the skills, talent and other elements they need to thrive ... Connectivity equals jobs," he said in his report 'Rebalancing Britain'.
The 43 billion pound ($69.2 billion) HS2 project has divided opinion in Britain because of its cost and the possible impact on the countryside.
The first phase of HS2, between London and Birmingham, is due to open in 2026 with the second phase extension to Leeds and Manchester due from 2033. Earlier this year Higgins recommended this second phase be built by 2027.
Higgins' report on Sunday looked at whether there were alternatives to building this second phase of the HS2 route, such as upgrading existing lines, but said they did not offer the same level of capacity, connectivity or economic benefit.
Higgins, who oversaw the building of London's Olympic Park, said Britain should seek to learn lessons from how high-speed rail links have been built faster and for less money elsewhere in the world, learning from design and construction techniques.
In response, the government said it would launch a review which would draw on international experience to find ways to bring down the cost of both the second phase of HS2 and future high-speed rail projects in Britain.
(Reporting by Kylie MacLellan; Editing by Catherine Evans)