The benefits of the proposed high speed line from London to Birmingham are a myth and the cost of creating the route risks taking resources away from local projects, a senior rail industry figure has warned.
Chris Stokes, former executive director of the Strategic Rail Authority, has warned that “heretics” like him were being ignored as the Government announced a formal consultation on the route this week.
Mr Stokes said existing rail lines may be able to meet demand between London and Birmingham and that capacity on the West Coast Mainline, which Network Rail said would be full by 2024, could be increased dramatically.
He said improvements to the Chiltern Line, which also runs from London to Birmingham, would make it an increasingly attractive option for travellers.
Ministers face continued opposition to plans for high speed rail services, although the proposed line, which could cost £17 billion, continues to have the firm backing of Birmingham City Council and Birmingham Chamber.
However, Staffordshire County Council, Coventry City Council and Warwickshire County Council have opposed the scheme.
The line, which would see 250mph trains travel from London to Birmingham within 49 minutes, is due to begin in 2016.
Transport Secretary Philip Hammond has announced changes to the proposed route, designed to limit the impact on residents living nearby, but this failed to reassure many of the residents’ groups and MPs who have expressed concern.
The cross-party consensus in favour of high speed rail was also in doubt as Labour’s shadow Transport Secretary, Maria Eagle, warned that it would be considered as part of a full review of Labour policy led by Birmingham MP Liam Byrne (Lab Hodge Hill).
Mr Stokes is a former deputy director of Network South East and executive director of the Strategic Rail Authority, the regulator created in 2001. He is now a rail industry consultant.
He said: “The cost of the full network now being planned, going up to Leeds and Manchester, could be £30 billion. But it is not a good use of taxpayers’ money. And it could actually take resources away from improvements to existing services such as the West Coast Main Line.”
Mr Stokes also set out his concerns in an article for magazine Modern Railways, in which he analysed the arguments set out in a report by High Speed Two Ltd (HS2 Ltd), the company set up by the Government to investigate the case for a new rail line.
The HS2 Ltd report predicts a 267 per cent increase in demand for long distance travel on the West Coast Main Line and high speed route by 2033.
But while official statistics show that demand for rail services has increased significantly in the past 10 years, demand for travel in general has actually fallen slightly.
In other words, the rail’s share of a saturated market has grown, but the market itself is shrinking.
Mr Stokes said: “HS2’s supporters argue that the project will pump prime economic growth in the regions. An equally credible alternative is that it will make Britain even more London-centric than it already is.
“For example, will the West Midlands benefit from a kick-start to its economy - or will it gradually become a satellite of London, a place where the back office jobs are located because it is cheaper and the staff can be paid less?”
The HS2 report predicts there will be wider economic benefits of £3.6 billion but most of this will come from planned improvements to local services in the region – which will also result in less congestion on the roads – rather than improved services between London and Birmingham.
Prime Minister David Cameron has suggested high speed rail will help reduce the wealth gap between the north and the south.
But Mr Stokes believes northern cities such as Leeds and Liverpool might benefit more from improvements to local and regional services.
Many rail industry experts, including representatives of Virgin Trains, which runs long-distance services on the West Coast Main Line, have warned that a new line is needed because the existing one is running out of capacity.
But Mr Stokes argued far more could be done to increase capacity on the West Coast Main Line – and some of the required changes are already in the pipeline.
He said: “The first step is to recognise the capacity uplift already in the pipeline. An 11-car Pendolino will have 150 extra standard class seats, an increase of 51 per cent on the present capacity. It is probable that one, possibly even two, first class vehicles could be converted to standard with minimal revenue loss, giving a further capacity increase.”
Improvements to the Chiltern Line between London and Birmingham will make this a more attractive alternative to commuters too, he said.
And the business case for HS2 makes a series of assumptions to argue that travellers will jump at the chance of shorter journeys, he said.
In fact, the number who prefer to stick to the standard lines - assuming operators on these lines are allowed to charge lower prices than the HS2 service - may be far higher than the HS2 report predicts.
The Government has set out a series of changes to the proposed route of the London to Birmingham line, including moving the line away from the village of Stoneleigh, Warwickshire, lowered the alignment near Burton Green, Warwickshire, and covering it to reduce the visual and noise impacts on the village, and moving the alignment further from Lichfield, Staffordshire.
The Government faces a bitter fight with residents to push through plans for the 250mph rail link through Warwickshire and Staffordshire despite making changes to the route.
Transport Secretary Philip Hammond announced plans to alter several sections of the £33 billion line in a bid to head off a clash with protestors in Tory heartlands.
Parts of rural Warwickshire are set to be among the worst affected in the country, according to pressure groups.
Campaigners said the alterations announced by Mr Hammond this week have not gone far enough and say they still doubt the business case for high speed rail between Birmingham and London.
In Ladbroke, Warwickshire, the proposed line has been altered to pass to the north of the historic village through a cutting 600 metres away from homes instead of thundering over a four-kilometre long viaduct within 150 metres from the centre.
Graham Long, chairman of the Ladbroke Action Group, said: “There is some small victory but what the Government needs to understand is that we are opposed to high speed rail on the basis that they haven’t made a cogent business case.”
About 50 per cent of the line between London and Birmingham has been changed since it was announced by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown earlier this year.
Mr Hammond was facing a backlash from many of his own MPs in the Chilterns and Oxfordshire where the route will cut a swathe through the countryside.
Other changes include using a tunnel to carry the line past Burton Green near Coventry, rather than a tiny cutting from a disused railway which closed during the 1960s.
The village of Stoneleigh has also been granted a reprieve after the line has been moved away from homes but will run through the National Agricultural Centre at Stoneleigh Park. A six-month public consultation on the new route will now begin in February.
Ian Waddell, chairman of the Middleton Action Group Against HS2, said: “Warwickshire will still suffer all the most blight of any area in the country, and none of the alleged benefits of HS2. I am seriously concerned about what this means for the residents of Middleton, Water Orton, Coleshill, Drayton Bassett and many more areas.”
Campaigners in Staffordshire vowed to continue their campaign against the line, despite changes removing the threat of a 685-metre viaduct past Lichfield’s Boley Park and Streethay.
The new alignment will take the line from Hints through Whittington Heath golf course before crossing the A38 just north-east of Streethay, near The Manor House, then swing back to join the West Coast Main Line between Elmhurst and Handsacre.