Former Transport Secretary Andrew Adonis has urged the Government to “hold firm” after a series of major blows appeared to put the future of HS2 in jeopardy.
In a barrage of attacks, Lord Mandleson and the Public Accounts Committee hit out at plans for the high-speed rail line, amid revelations of soaring costs, with an extra £10 billion added to the bill, and admissions from transport chiefs that they had overestimated the economic benefits.
But in an interview with the Birmingham Post Labour peer Lord Adonis, now an adviser to Labour leader Ed Miliband, told the Government to hold firm and get the rail line built.
He said it was vital for Birmingham that the work went ahead, and business leaders and politicians in the city also insisted there was no alternative to HS2, which will see railway stations built in Birmingham city centre and a second station near Birmingham Airport.
The project, which is expected to create 22,000 jobs in the West Midlands, has been hit by a number of setbacks:
- Lord Mandelson, the former Business Secretary who once championed HS2, revealed that he now believes it could be an ‘expensive mistake’.
- The cross-party consensus in favour of the scheme was threatened when it emerged Labour Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls was “worried” about rising costs.
- Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin revealed the predicted cost had increased by £8.1 billion to £42.6 billion.
- The Department for Transport admitted it had overestimated the economic benefits of HS2.
Opponents of the line have renewed calls for the Government to scrap the project. Penny Gaines, chair of the Stop HS2 campaign, said: “The Government should stop this runaway train before it costs the country any more money.”
But Lord Adonis warned that cancelling HS2 now would be a disaster claiming that without it, the West Coast Main Line would run out of capacity.
He said: “To cancel HS2 would be to repeat the worst short-termist mistakes of the past and you don’t need a crystal ball to see what would happen. We’ve just spent £10 billion upgrading the West Coast Main Line causing chronic disruption over a decade and yielding only a fraction of the capacity and economic benefits of HS2.
“Just consider Birmingham International to London in 29 minutes, interchanging directly on to the new Crossrail line and taking people in to the West End in just another 10 minutes, and Docklands in 20 minutes.
“This will transform for the better the whole relationship between Birmingham and London, generating growth, jobs and prosperity. And we shouldn’t sacrifice this because if the usual short term problems of rising estimates of costs for major infrastructure projects.”
MP Gisela Stuart (Lab Edgbaston) said: “If you step back and consider Britain over the next 50 years, we know that we need to increase rail capacity and connectivity across the whole island.
“We have to join up the different regions of the country and high speed rail is the way of doing it.”
Sir Albert Bore, leader of Birmingham City Council and transport spokesman for the group of eight “core cities”, said the HS2 line would give the region a ‘European’ class system.
He said: “Do we want to be the only member state of the EU which does not connect to the high speed European network? The answer must be no.”
Jerry Blackett, chief executive of Birmingham Chamber of Commerce Group, added: “We do believe the economic benefits from connecting eight great cities will kick-start wealth creation outside of London.”
They spoke out after Lord Mandelson revealed he no longer supports HS2, and urged Ministers and his Labour colleagues to consider spending the money on upgrading the East Coast and West Coast Main Lines instead. He said: “Politicians should not be afraid to think again about a project whose estimated cost has just risen again by a quarter, to £42.6 billion. In addition to the projected cost, we gave insufficient attention to the massive disruption to many people’s lives construction would bring. I now fear HS2 could be an expensive mistake.”
Department for Transport officials also confirmed this week that they were looking again at some of the calculations in business case for HS2.
The DfT estimated that phase one of the new network, running from London to Birmingham, would add £12.6 billion to the economy by allowing business travellers to spend less time travelling and more time in the office.
In an further blow, the timetable for the scheme was condemned as “mad” by Margaret Hodge, chair of the Public Accounts Committee.
The DfT hopes to start building work in 2017 and open the first phase to passengers in 2026, but it concedes that this depends on getting the “hybrid” Bill allowing construction to proceed into law by March 2015.
Ms Hodge said: “You are absolutely joking that you will get Royal Assent by 2015. It is a complete madness. Don’t you understand that? It is just unrealistic.”
Alistair Darling, another former Chancellor and also a former transport secretary, has also expressed doubts.
The scheme passed its first hurdle in the Commons when the High Speed Rail (Preparation) Bill received its second reading and an attempted rebellion by MPs opposed to the scheme flopped.
An HS2 spokesman said Lord Mandelson did not call for HS2 to be cancelled but wanted more evidence of its benefits. He added: “We must build on that consensus by providing up to date and detailed evidence of the benefits that HS2 will bring, including the creation of 100,000 jobs and the economic return of £2 for every £1 invested through linking eight out of our 10 biggest cities. However, we recognise the challenge that has been laid down and our need to respond.”