Plans for a new £32 billion high speed rail network with Birmingham at its heart have been dealt a major blow after they were criticised by the Commons committee responsible for overseeing public spending.
The Government’s case for building the high speed line, known as High Speed Two or HS2, does not stand up to scrutiny, the Public Accounts Committee warned.
And Ministers were repeating the same mistakes made when building High Speed One, the high speed line which runs from London to the Channel Tunnel in Kent, which left taxpayers saddled with £4.8 billion in unexpected debt, MPs said.
In particular, they accused Ministers of exaggerating the number of passengers who would want to use the planned high speed rail line.
And they claimed Ministers had exaggerated the benefits to the economy of providing faster trains. The Government assumed that time spent travelling was time wasted, when in fact many people worked during rail journeys, MPs said.
The report will provide ammunition to opponents of high speed rail, who claim the Government’s plans are a waste of money.
Most of Birmingham’s business leaders, councillors and MPs are firmly behind plans to build a high speed rail network from London to Birmingham and on Leeds and Newcastle.
The line, which is backed by all three major parties at Westminster, is due to open in 2026 and supporters say it will bring an estimated 8,000 jobs to Birmingham. It will include a major new rail station at Curzon Street, in Birmingham City Centre.
But it has aroused strong opposition elsewhere. A number of MPs in Staffordshire and Warwickshire oppose the plan, and so does Coventry City Council.
The Committee held an inquiry into High Speed One (HS1), which opened in 2003, but became concerned that the same mistakes made then are being repeated now.
MP Margaret Hodge, the Committee’s chairman, said: “HS1 will continue to cost the taxpayer money - £10.2 billion over the next 60 years - so before going ahead with HS2 we need a robust cost benefit analysis.
“Some of the Department’s assumptions about the benefits of faster travel are simply untenable.”
She added: “The Department also assumes that all time spent on a train is unproductive. And unrealistic assumptions about ticket prices act to exaggerate passenger demand forecasts.
“The Department also told us that it had not considered the benefits and costs of alternatives to HS2 such as investment in broadband video-conferencing or investment in alternative, more local train routes.
“It is nonsense that the Department does not have a full understanding of the wider economic impact and regeneration benefits of transport infrastructure, including HS1, to inform future investment decisions.”