Evidence that HS2 will promote economic growth or tackle the north-south divide is "limited", according to a report from the New Economics Foundation (NEF).
The £33bn high-speed rail project designed to connect London to Birmingham is likely to be "carbon intensive and environmentally damaging", while not offering the expected value for money.
The NEF has suggested that money allocated to HS2 could be more effective elsewhere, in a way that would better suit the needs of commuters travelling from and to London.
"HS2 is the largest transport investment in the UK's history. At the moment it amounts to a £33bn gamble,” said David Theiss, a researcher at the NEF.
The think-tank believes that the “demand for HS2 has likely been overestimated by oversimplified government modelling”, and that several smaller investments would do a much better job. "Our research shows the government is backing the wrong horse. Instead of pouring billions of pounds into a single line that will take 20 years to complete we should be spreading our bets on a wider range of transport investments that offer better value for money," the report said.
Among the alternatives to HS2, NEF outlines spending £10bn on transformation of rail infrastructure in northern England and the Midlands creating new and faster rail links. The money might also be used on revitalising stations and electrifying regional rail lines.
Another £10bn investment could back the overhaul of the East and West Coast mainlines, increasing the speed, capacity and reliability of the north-south rail travel with less environmental damage compared to the HS2 option.
A further £6bn would ensure the mass-transport upgrade in Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool, including investments in large light-rail schemes and bus networks.
To boost business and reduce pressure on transport, the think-tank recommends spending £4.5bn on superfast fibre optic broadband across the country. Finally, £2bn would suffice to make cities outside London more bicycle-friendly.
In reaction to the NEF’s report, Transport Minister Simon Burns reassured that government does have plans to invest into the existing rail network, alongside the HS2 project, and defended the need for the HS2 to be built. "Demand for long-distance rail travel has doubled to 125 million journeys a year in the past 15 years and by the mid-2020s the West Coast Main Line will be completely full,” he said.