The proposed HS2 high-speed rail line is “vitally important” to Britain’s economic future, Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin insisted today, despite publication of a scathing parliamentary report into his Department’s preparations for the project.
In a withering assessment of the proposed link between London and cities in the Midlands and the North of England, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) said the government had failed to make a “convincing strategic case” for the £42bn scheme, and the apparent benefits were dwindling as the costs spiralled.
Ministers’ case for the massive project was based on “fragile numbers, out-of-date data and assumptions which do not reflect real life” with no evidence that it would aid regional economies rather than sucking even more activity into London, said the report.
It also warned that an “unrealistic” target of securing the necessary legislation by 2015 risked a repeat of costly errors such as the botched West Coast main line franchise award.
But McLoughlin insisted that the project can be completed within budget and will benefit the UK as a whole.
He told the BBC Radio 4 'Today' programme: “The budget is very clear. It is a £42bn budget, including a £14bn contingency. The Mayor of London says it’ll be 70, someone else says it’ll be 80, soon we’ll have someone saying it’s £100bn. The simple fact is we’ve got to deliver it within that budget.
“I believe it is for the benefit of the long-term future of the United Kingdom. If we are going to be able to compete globally, we need to be able to attract businesses to our cities. To attract businesses to our cities, there need to be good connections. That is vitally important to the future of this country long term.”
The PAC report said there is insufficient evidence that HS2 is “the most effective and economic way of responding to future demand patterns, that the figures predicting future demand are robust and credible and that the improved connectivity between London and regional cities will enhance growth and activity in the regions rather than sucking more activity into London”.
Evidence used to show the benefits to commuters was so out of date that it failed to recognise that business travellers are able to work on trains using laptops and other mobile devices.
Committee chair Margaret Hodge questioned whether building the planned line, initially running from London to Birmingham by 2026 before being extended to Manchester and Leeds in 2033, was the best use of money available to upgrade Britain’s railways.
She told 'Today': “The question my committee would ask is if you’ve got £50bn to spend on the railways, should you be spending it here? Wouldn’t it be better to ease the commuter congestion on this line by looking at longer trains, longer platforms, more frequent trains? Wouldn’t it be more sensible to try, if you want to really stimulate activity in the regional cities, to do things like linking Bristol right across to Liverpool, so that brings them new markets?”
David Cameron has declared himself “passionately in favour” of the project, and the government is shortly to launch a campaign to bolster support for the investment in the face of what the Prime Minister called an “unholy alliance” of sceptics.
McLoughlin said: “The simple fact is we have not built a new railway line north of London for 120 years. There has been massive growth in our railways in the last 15 years – from 750 million journeys to one and a half billion journeys, inter-city journeys have doubled – and the truth is we can’t not do anything.
“This is planning for the long-term future of our railways. This railway will be up and running in 2026. It is essential that we have good connections between our main cities.”
He denied that the massive scale of investment in HS2 meant other lines were being starved of cash.
“Network Rail are spending £30bn on the rail network between 2014-19. We’ve already spent £9bn upgrading the West Coast main line north of Rugby over the last 10 years. That has not led to the increase in capacity. Even if we did some of the other things which could increase capacity on the west coast, we would be talking about increasing capacity by about 53 per cent. HS2 will increase capacity by 143 per cent of volume. That’s absolutely essential.
“We are not building this railway for 10, 15 or 20 years. This railway will be around for the next 100 years. If you are building, you build the best.”