HS2 costs could mean rail nightmare, says Darling


The BBC's Vicki Young gets the reaction of people living in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire

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Ex-Chancellor Alistair Darling has warned of a potential "nightmare" on England's existing railways if the multibillion-pound HS2 line is built.

He was in the cabinet when the high speed rail scheme was approved in principle but has now changed his mind.

A rise in its budget from £32bn to £42.6bn would drain cash from other lines, he said.

But Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin hit back by saying not building HS2 would be a nightmare.

He said "massive growth" in passengers and freight meant the line was a necessity.

Labour's front bench has backed the scheme, which ministers say is vital and will create billions of pounds of benefits.

Its first phase would see 225mph trains running on a new railway line to be built between London and the West Midlands by 2026. A second phase would see the line extended further north with branches to Leeds and Manchester by 2033.

'Falling apart'

Mr Darling, also a former transport secretary, was chancellor in the previous Labour government when the first stage of HS2 was approved in principle in 2010.

He told the BBC that, at the time, he thought the case for HS2 was "just about stateable". But he had changed his mind because of the revised costs - which he said meant future governments would not have the money to spend on other lines.


Alistair Darling says he's speaking out against HS2 as a concerned backbencher worried about the increasing costs.

Mr Darling's intervention is significant as he was chancellor when the first stage of the high-speed rail project from London to Birmingham was approved in 2010 - he's also a former transport secretary.

But he says he's now changed his mind because he thinks the business case for HS2 has been exaggerated and argues that there are better ways of encouraging growth outside London.

Mr Darling says he realises he's in a minority of MPs but he's not the first or only Labour MP to raise concerns.

Shadow chancellor Ed Balls said there must be no "blank cheque" for the project.

Mr Darling's comments will be seen as a blow to the coalition, which has cross-party support for the project.

"My experience as transport secretary is that if you do not spend money on upgrading, improving the track, improving the trains, then the thing will simply, eventually start falling apart, as it did by the mid-1990s."

He said the West Coast Mainline had been ignored for 30 years and became "an absolute disaster" which had to be rebuilt at a cost of £8bn.

"That is an example of the sort of money you need to be spending. The East Coast Mainline, which was last done up seriously probably about 25 years ago, it will need money spent on [it]."

'No blank cheque'

He added: "My fear is, if you build this visionary project that you will have a nightmare on the rest of the network because you don't have the money to spend on it."

Some Conservative MPs whose constituencies would be affected have also raised concerns and another former Labour cabinet minister, Lord Mandelson, has warned it could be "an expensive mistake".

Asked if Labour would continue to support the project, shadow chancellor Ed Balls told the BBC: "We have consistently supported plans for a north-south rail link but it's got to work, it's got to be value for money.

"There will be no blank cheque from a Labour Treasury."

Labour leader Ed Miliband says he is a "supporter" of the HS2 rail project but it should be scrutinised for "value for money".

He said having a high-speed rail link is "part of being a modern country" and will help boost growth in areas outside of London.

And reiterating the party's support for the scheme, shadow transport secretary Maria Eagle said it was the only way to address the "capacity issue" for passengers and freight on the railways.

Reports in the Financial Times suggested that Treasury officials were preparing for an overspend of £31bn on the project, including account inflation and VAT over 20 years.

Transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin MP: "It would be a nightmare if we didn't do HS2"

But Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin said the budget of £42.6bn had not changed and included contingency money.

He told the BBC that the government would be investing heavily in rail over the next five years, with £37bn to electrify 880 miles of railway, the "northern hub" programme to upgrade rail links between northern cities and infrastructure investment in Reading and Birmingham stations.

"There's no doubt in the government's mind as to the importance of our railway network.

"The simple fact is, Mr Darling says that it would be a nightmare if we do HS2. It would also be a nightmare if we didn't do HS2 because what we have seen is a massive growth in [passengers and freight on] our railways over the past 20 years."

"I want to see freight continue to increase on our railways, I want to see more people using our railways but there's a big capacity problem."

He said no new railway had been built north of London for more than 120 years and Britain needed better links between its cities and more capacity on the railways for freight.

"No major infrastructure project gets under way without huge controversy. When we built HS1 [from St Pancras in London to the Channel Tunnel] people were complaining about that and saying that it shouldn't go ahead... that it would wreck the countryside. Actually if you go and look at what's happened now, people aren't saying that at all."

Graphic showing the route for the new highs-peed rail network

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  • rate this

    Comment number 600.

    I commute from southwest England to London once a week on First Great Western (standard class). I used to commute from southwest France once a week via British Airways.

    Which costs more?

    Yep, the train. And yet that is subsidised, whilst BA fend for themselves.

    As we measure the economy by money spent, I guess it is better served by trains, because they cost more!

    So obviously we need HS2...

  • rate this

    Comment number 599.

    Anything above Manchester is no mans land especially north west. Maybe northerners would like better things but no all the money gets spent down south. For the sake of saving half an hour. The money would be better spent improving existing rail lines and reopening some closed stations & making it more accessible. I'm all for advancements but not at the expense of the rest of UK

  • rate this

    Comment number 598.

    Tax payers' money used to fund it, and yet it will still be privately owned and operated. Why not let the private sector pay for it, then see how long it takes to go into profit ??
    That'll be a laugh !

  • rate this

    Comment number 597.

    Improve the existing rail network to world class. This is no longer the 1950s, so nationalise and lean-manage it - and remove the grasping, inert shareholders to make sure that profits are reinvested. We need the best performance-related management team.

  • rate this

    Comment number 596.

    Please can the government sort out the pot-holes in Britain before they even contemplate £80 Billion HS2. What people in Britain want is all the old railway stations re opened, you know the ones that Beeching wrongly closed down 50 years ago in favour of the new motorways. Big sigh.

  • rate this

    Comment number 595.

    I would be more likely to support HS2 if only businesses and higher rate taxpayers contributed to its cost. After all, they are the ones who will benefit.

  • rate this

    Comment number 594.

    418. AuntieLeft

    "HS2 would less of a 'nightmare' than Labour returning to 'government'"

    Returning?? Are these clowns not in government just now?

    During the past 3 years, the continuous bad economic news was blamed on "the Labour government".
    So which clowns are running the country now?

  • rate this

    Comment number 593.

    We need efficient,affordable non-HS lines. We need swift access to all major cities. Darling highlights an either-or situation which indicates how badly we have been getting this wrong over time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 592.

    No shillo (555), the £80bn figure was propaganda from a so-called think tank - not a real estimate, nor worthy of any kind of headline.

    And please don't conflate or confuse the cost of HS2 with the very real crisis in NHS expenditure. The former is a one-off expense, the latter will be a continuing nightmare until it's reinvented from top to toe.

  • rate this

    Comment number 591.

    "securing maximum value for money for the taxpayer"

    I get no value whatsoever from this project
    Thats because like many your not looking beyond whats right in front of you. those building it will hire companies to do work some of which will be passed to others et cetera all of whom pay wages which are then spent. You'll benefit if your in work however indirectly.

  • rate this

    Comment number 590.

    This must be one of the craziest vanity projects to be supported by the government. We're a small country with existing lines running from London to the north - if it's about capacity why can't more tracks be laid alongside existing routes? If it's about time saving what's the point of saving twenty minutes on a train if you're stuck in traffic for forty minutes?

  • rate this

    Comment number 589.

    the train may be capable of doing 250mph but it never will, no train yet has stayed at top speed for very long, and by the time its slowed down into stations and sped back up again and then had to deal with leaves on the line the real time saving will be minutes not hours, waste of money

  • rate this

    Comment number 588.

    If an HS2 train stops at a station for only 2 minutes then logically two trains travelling at 240mph on the same track must travel at least 8 miles apart.
    A system with only one vehicle every 8 miles does not sound like a good use of resource.

  • rate this

    Comment number 587.

    Living in the friendly north I see no reason to get to London 30 mins quicker to be greeted by people that cannot think outside of the M25 - the money would be best spent on a Hadrian type wall around the capital.

  • rate this

    Comment number 586.

    Living in the North-East this is a matter of some interest to me.
    In my view it would be far better to improve the existing ECML and to increase speeds to (say) 150 MPH than to build an entirely new railway. Existing stock has already run at these speeds so it is entirely feasible.

  • rate this

    Comment number 585.

    Quite simply a vanity project. £42.6bn to relink London to the West Midlands and Manchester is abhorrent; even with super high-speed trains.
    The Government must sit back and listen and re-invest into the decaying existing rail infrastructure and at the same time defend hard pressed passengers from over inflated fares.

  • rate this

    Comment number 584.

    Infrastructure projects take money not make money
    £80b is enough to give 1000000 people £80,000 each. In fact 90% of the investment will end up in foreign pockets.
    If we invested that money in UK exports and import reduction then the extra income it would produce for the Nation. Plus, the amount of money it stops leaking abroad would pay for the HSrail, reduce borrowing and increase wages.

  • rate this

    Comment number 583.

    @ 568

    civil servants to care one bit. its not their money, and they get pre set pay rises, they are not held accountable, and can a do do what they want with zero consequence... and then we in the private sector who bring money in this country pay for their fat state pensions which we dont get

  • rate this

    Comment number 582.

    Why do people keep thinking this is a commuter line, it isn't it runs to the centre of each city it services, there's not going to be any parking and no significant change in access services to those stations, it will be just as quick to drive as to go the station and a hell of a lot cheaper.

  • rate this

    Comment number 581.

    As a railway professional who worked on HS1, I welcome he opportunity to build something from scratch, rather than simply augmenting a centuries old network.

    However, there are more pressing needs than this proposal. Have you ever tried getting from Heathrow to Gatwick/? Not unreasonable being as they are both London serving airports, yet it is a nightmare.

    Reading to Milton Keyenes?


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