LONDON (Reuters) - The newly appointed chairman of Britain's proposed high speed rail network said on Thursday his first task would be to seek cross-party support for the 42.6 billion pound ($68.5 billion) project.
David Higgins, chief executive of Network Rail who headed the Olympic Delivery Authority, will take up the role in January, replacing Doug Oakervee.
Higgins said he would immediately try to secure support from the opposition Labour party for the high-speed line between London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds.
The project, known as High Speed Two (HS2), has been heavily criticised by business groups and lawmakers who question whether the infrastructure programme will generate sufficient benefits to outweigh its rising cost.
Labour's finance spokesman Ed Balls hinted this week that Labour might shelve the project if it won the 2015 election. He told his party conference that Labour still supported the idea but alternative options may need to be considered.
Higgins said it was essential for economic growth that Britain upgraded its railway network that was the oldest in Europe and struggling with overcapacity.
"On the bottom end it is all about capacity ... in the north it is about connectivity," Higgins told BBC radio. "You can't have this as a political football. It is too crucial."
Higgins said he would be meeting Balls in the coming weeks to discuss the project.
He also questioned the timing of the project which currently would see the first trains running between London and the west Midlands by 2026, saying this was too far out.
"The case to be made is what is the alternative?" Higgins said. "It is essential for economic growth in this country to have a proper, modern railway."
(Reporting by Belinda Goldsmith; Editing by Alison Williams)