Birmingham’s Labour MPs are gearing up for another battle to bring high speed rail to the city after their shadow Transport Minister warned the party may drop support for the 250mph line.
Maria Eagle said Labour could not guarantee it could find funding for the high-speed line, if it wins the next election in 2015. And she announced the party would launch a full review of transport policy next month “with nothing ruled in or out”.
The comments shatter the cross-party consensus on high speed rail which had been seen as essential to its progress. Conservatives announced they would build a London to Birmingham line at their 2008 annual conference and the policy was quickly adopted by Labour.
Both parties committed themselves to building a line between the cities, at a cost of up to £17.4 billion.
Work on the line is expected to begin in 2015, with the high speed network opening in phases from 2026. Since then, the parties have both also committed themselves to extending the line further, to the North-east and North-west.
Lord Adonis, Labour’s former transport secretary, insisted before last year’s General Election that high speed rail should be placed above party politics and needed the backing of all parties to proceed.
But Ms Eagle’s comments suggest Labour is having second thoughts.
She said: “The Tory-led government has delayed the completion of vital rail projects including Crossrail and Thameslink in London, cut new carriages planned by Labour and hit commuters with massive fare increases.
“At the same time they plan to only spend £750 million of the £17.5 billion cost of the proposed new high-speed line to Birmingham. Labour will next month launch a root and branch review of our transport policy with nothing ruled in or out.
“It would be irresponsible to make cast-iron spending commitments for beyond 2015 before we have listened to the public and come to conclusions about our future priorities.”
Birmingham MP Khalid Mahmood (Lab, Perry Barr) said he would be writing to Ms Eagle insisting that high speed rail was essential to “revitalise the economy and provide employment”.
Gisela Stuart (Lab, Edgbaston) said: “I am confident this review will end up confirming our commitment to high speed rail and that’s the outcome I will be pushing for.”
Steve McCabe (Lab, Selly Oak) said he would also be calling on the party to renew its commitment to high speed rail, but added: “It will only be the right policy if it is affordable after 2015. I will support high speed rail but I have to be realistic.”
The issue has also split Conservative MPs. Dan Byles, Conservative MP for North Warwickshire, has written to the chairman of the Commons Transport Committee urging the committee to investigate the proposed line.
He said in the letter: “Serious questions have been raised about the business case on which the project rests, not only by the various action groups of concerned residents who will see their properties and lives severely blighted if this project goes ahead, but also by senior industry professionals.”
A review of studies into the impact of high speed rail overseas has warned that services may actually harm the economies of smaller cities. Academics at the Research Institute of Applied Economics at the University of Barcelona examined the effect of high speed rail lines in Japan, France, Germany and Spain, drawing on existing research.
They said: “For regions and cities whose economic conditions compare unfavourably with those of their neighbours, a connection to the high speed train line may even result in economic activities being drained away and an overall negative impact.
"Medium-sized cities may well be the ones to suffer most from the economic attraction of the more dynamic, bigger cities.”
Meanwhile, it has emerged that properties owned by Earl Spencer could be affected by the new line. The line will run close to the picturesque village of Wormleighton in Warwickshire, where the Spencer family still own properties.