MPs support high-speed line to the North

8 Nov 11
MPs have backed the government's controversial plans for a high-speed rail line between Birmingham and London, saying it would provide 'a step change' in the quality of rail services.

By Richard Johnstone | 8 November 2011

MPs have backed the government’s controversial plans for a high-speed rail line between Birmingham and London, saying it would provide ‘a step change’ in the quality of rail services.

However, the Commons transport select committee called on the government to ‘firmly commit’ to extending the High Speed 2 network to Manchester and Leeds before seeking parliamentary approval for the first stage.

Committee chair Louise Ellman urged the Department for Transport to examine options to start construction of the line in the North of England. The committee report, issued today, said it was ‘concerned’ that, under current plans, high-speed rail lines would not reach Manchester and Leeds for more than 20 years.

‘The government should as a priority examine the potential to build southwards from the North,’ Ellman said.

The Birmingham link is estimated to cost £17bn and the total cost to be £32.2bn. The report concluded that this would be affordable, costing around £2bn a year over 17 years.

However, it added that it was ‘disappointing’ that such a major strategic transport scheme was being assessed, to a large extent, on the benefits of travel time savings. Such a methodology is not universally accepted, the MPs said. They called on the government to produce an updated economic case when it responds to the consultation on the proposals that took place earlier this year. They also want the government to show that the cost of the HS2 can be met alongside sustained investment in the existing network.

Debate around the proposal should ‘focus on the facts’, the MPs added. Some campaign groups, including the Countryside Alliance, have criticised the plans for their potential impact on the landscape. Others, including the Stop HS2 campaign group, fear that the economic benefits, which the government says would equate to 2.6 times the cost of the line, will not be realised.

The MPs say that the government should ‘desist from disparaging opponents of high-speed rail as Nimbys’. Both sides in the debate should ‘show respect for each other and focus on the facts’.

Ellman concluded: ‘Investment in high-speed rail has potential to boost growth but may have a substantial negative impact on the countryside, communities and people along the route. This must be better reflected in the business case for HS2 and future phases of the project.’

The DfT said it welcomed the committee’s support for a high-speed rail network in Britain.

‘The report provides a useful contribution to the debate on high speed rail, and echoes a number of the messages coming out from the responses to the public consultation,’ a spokesman said.

But Stop HS2 campaign co-ordinator Joe Rukin said that the report was ‘absolutely scathing in its list of work that still needs doing in terms of planning and appraising HS2 before deciding to proceed’.

He added: ‘They have asked for ministers to publish the evidence which shows how they can afford to build HS2 whilst being able to continue investing in the rest of the network with projected capital and revenue expenditure profiles.

‘The entire business case for HS2 is propped up by the voodoo economics principle of actually working out a cash value for “time is money”, something which the committee state is “disappointing”.’

A DfT spokesman said that the consultation response would be published before the end of the year.

• Read Christian Wolmar’s Public Finance feature on the proposals here. Spacer

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