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.

Analysis

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
    +2

    Comment number 1020.

    The ECML is being returned to private ownership. Let the shareholders put up the money to upgrade it. But of course, that's not how the privatised rail network the Tories built works at all. The taxpayer and the passengers give; the private sector owners take.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 1019.

    In China, a HS that was 2000 miles long went from conception to completion in 18 months with a budget of £1 Billion. Now I'm not saying that that HS line is going to be very safe or trustworthy, but it makes me wonder why its going to take 20 years and £50 billion to build a line one tenth the size of the one in China. If the Victorians took the same amount of time building railways....

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 1018.

    To completely misquote James Dean : "Whatever you're for we're against it".
    Labour seem to have no policies, only a knee jerk reaction to everything the Tories do, in a frantic attempt to buy approval without actually having to spend any money as they're in opposition.

    As for HS2, the railways were obviously a bad idea from the beginning, just look how many lines have had to close.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 1017.

    Everyone will think this completely insane - we could build a network of high speed rail lines all over this country without touching an inch of green belt (and at far lower cost). Simply build over our motorways, leaving three lanes in total for motor vehicles, which would consist overwhelmingly of commercial vehicles - Private motor vehicles having been reduced (by legislation) to 5 million.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 1016.

    For those who say upgrade existing lines, please tell me how? For high speed trains, the track needs to be as straight as possible. Just look how the west coast route snakes around the country. 140mph trains are restricted to 125! Oh and the line is almost at full capacity. Just get on with HS2!

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 1015.

    I think we need to continue to invest in infrastructure projects like HS2 and others if we hope to maintain our economic status.

    I'm an avid cyclist, but to read as an alternative that we should build cycle lanes is frankly laughable. How many people are likely to cycle from London to Manchester?!

    We should also look at reopening some of the closed lines to offer an alternative to the car.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 1014.

    The frightening thing is the true costs won't be known until the work on the line actually starts, even years during the build. It will be too late to cancel it then, and the future generation could be stuck with mountainous costs of up to £150billion, and be plunged into an all new recession.

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 1013.

    I remember HS2 being debated on Radio 4's "Any Questions" a while ago and a Government Minister actually said "just because there is no social, economic, political or environmental case for doing it that's no reason for us not to go ahead".

    "Yep," I thought: "that just about sums it all up!"

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 1012.

    It does nothing for those living in the South West, personally I think this white elephant should be dropped and as many of Beechings scrapped branch lines should be reinstated, but not all. Further to this the concept of running trains at high speed on rails seems somewhat dated. Surely some for or magnetic system would be preferable.

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 1011.

    This is a project that will cost the UK tax payer vast amounts of money for very little gain.
    But I believe that it will go ahead not because it is good for the UK economy, which it clearly is not, but because it will make huge amounts of money for a few very rich friends of the conservative party.

  • rate this
    +6

    Comment number 1010.

    HS2 is a vanity project worthy of a foreign despot.

    It is the retirement plan for the Tories and their rich pals so that they can continue to suck the marrow from the bones of the British economy long after they have been booted out of office.

    A disgrace.

    Why not spend the money instead on rebuilding the sink estates where large numbers of people live with little or no hope.

    Shame on you all!

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 1009.

    I tend to agree with 590.cycleguy.
    Also, people travelling from the southwest to London for example are currently on very old rolling stock, packed to the gunnels, speed restrictions of 50/60mph and track bedding in places that gets washed away in heavy rain. We need proper investment to upgrade and increase capacity of what we have for the majority of our population in all regions.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 1008.

    This project was supposedly about boosting business. People that travel from Birmingham to London are not the sorts of people that will have jobs actually doing stuff and making things. There is not much need for these people to meet face to face, better internet speeds would be a wiser investment. They can then talk rubbish, about marketing, PR, how to fiddle numbers to their hearts content.

  • Comment number 1007.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 1006.

    HS2? What's that then?? Oh a high speed train line......

    Sorry, you'll have to forgive me...I'm from the north....where projects such as this aren't even considered by those big money southerners.

    Yep..the north is still here *waves*

  • rate this
    -4

    Comment number 1005.

    We must be the only country in the world which does not have a fast link to all areas of our country. Perhaps that is the problem and some vested interests would rather not have fast and reliable links because that may bring too many southerners to the socialist North and bring it into the 21st century.

    We have needed this for a long, long time, I don't think it is money at all.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 1004.

    Why? has everything got to be about, London, Birmingham, Manchester, leeds,
    Do Anyone live anywhere else within the UK?

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 1003.

    "HS2 costs could mean rail nightmare" not doing anything will be a nightmare. I'd much rather swap an inevitable nightmare, which not building and extra line amounts too, for a possible one.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 1002.

    When the cost was reasonable this project could've been successful, but now I have totally lost faith in the whole idea. Why isn't the money going to be spent on renewing existing network and reinstating some old lines at a much less cost?

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 1001.

    I'm still in two minds about HS2, I think it is too expensive. However those people who are saying 'who cares about 30 min time saving' are missing the point. Its about capacity. 8 trains from Euston/Marylebone go to Birmingham every hour and they're struggling to cope - you can't just keep upgrading lines. That would like adding a lane to the M1 every 10 years. However HS2 - I'm still skeptical.

 

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