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The UK government has unveiled a preferred route for second phase of the HS2 rail project

Parliament ‘seriously misled’ over HS2 costs, says deputy chair of review panel

Image credit: PA

Lord Tony Berkeley, Labour peer and former transport spokesperson, has strongly criticised aspects of the high-speed rail project in a 70-page report.

Lord Berkeley is also deputy chairman of a review panel (led by former HS2 Ltd chair Lord Oakervee), which has been tasked with investigating whether it would be appropriate to proceed with the ambitious project. Lord Berkeley is a longstanding critic of the project.

The proposed HS2 track will span much of England in a Y-shaped route, connecting London Euston to Leeds and Manchester via Birmingham. HS2 is expected to be able to carry passengers on trains travelling at speeds above 300km/h. Under current plans, the first phase of HS2 will open in 2026, with the second phase opening 2032-33.

While the project is considered favourably for its potential to increase speed and capacity for cross-country travel, it has also attracted concerns about whether it can be built within its planned timeframe and £55.7bn budget, as well as criticisms of London-centrism and the likely destruction of ancient woodland and the demolition of hundreds of houses. In August 2018, Prime Minister Boris Johnson commissioned the Oakervee review into HS2, which is due to present its findings early this year.

In a detailed report, Lord Berkeley laid out several serious concerns about the project, chief among them being the likelihood that the project is “completely out of control financially”. The project was originally expected to cost £50.1bn and estimates have since increased to £88bn. According to Lord Berkeley, independent analysts estimate an even higher figure of at least £107.92bn. Johnson has acknowledged that the cost of the project is likely to rise above £100bn.

Lord Berkeley stated that this inflated cost was due to HS2 being planned to a specification that is inappropriate for a country as small as England; high-speed rails of this sort are typically found in larger countries, such as China. At 360-400km/h, HS2 would be faster than any high-speed rail in Europe or Japan. He explained that a railway of this sort would not be able to run more than 12-14 trains per hour, although in the planning stages it had promised 18 high-speed trains to and from London every hour.

“I believe that Parliament has been seriously misled by the failure of HS2 Ltd and by ministers to report objectively and fairly on costs and programme changes,” Lord Berkeley wrote. “Parliament needs one firm figure for the funding envelope at the time when it gives formal approval to cancel or amend a project without wasting large sums of money.” He added that he believed ministers have known for years that the project is likely to blow out its budget.

Speaking to the BBC, Lord Berkeley explained that on top of the £100bn+ expense of HS2, around another £50bn would need to be spent improving commuter lines surrounding Birmingham in order to reap the full economic benefit of the project.

He also claimed that the project would be bad for the environment. He commented that the money could be better spent if the London-West Midlands ‘spine’ of HS2 was cancelled to focus investment on railways in the North.

Lord Berkeley said that he wrote this damning report because he was not given the opportunity to amend some conclusions of the draft Oakervee report. He accused the review panel of having a “bias towards accepting HS2’s evidence in preference to those of others” and taking the decision to support the project despite the submission of unfavourable evidence.

A leaked draft recommends that HS2 should be built in full and will require large ticket price rises to prevent excessive demand for peak time travel. It is unlikely that this conclusion will change between now and publication of the final report.

Maria Machancoses, director of Midland Connect which campaigns for transport improvements in the Midlands, told BBC Radio 4 that Birmingham had been enjoying the benefits of HS2 since its announcement and that HS2 critics have shown “disgraceful ignorance” of the importance of the project to the Midlands.

“HS2 needs to be delivered in its entirety,” Machancoses said. “HS2 is not just about connecting the Midlands to London, it is about connecting the Midlands to the North and it will most importantly deliver the released capacity we so desperately need in our local railway networks. It is a national priority, it has to be delivered.”

Northern Powerhouse director Henri Murison commented that Lord Berkeley’s report “[sounds] like the views of someone who has always been a sceptic of HS2 simply making the points they’ve made before.” Murison also accused Lord Berkeley of using incorrect figures to back up his criticism.

Former Labour transport minister Lord Adonis also disagreed with Lord Berkeley, writing on Twitter that: “Lord Berkeley says HS2 won’t help resolve commuter congestion into London, Birmingham and Manchester, which is the main rail capacity issue. This is incorrect. It takes most inter-city trains off the existing lines, freeing up lots of capacity for new commuter services.”

However, Lord Berkeley has been backed up by political figures from multiple parties, including Tory Brexiters David Davis and Michael Fabricant, Brexit Party chair Richard Tice and Green Party peer Jenny Jones.

An HS2 Ltd spokesperson stated: “There have been many individual views expressed about the HS2 project. However, we await the publication of the government’s official review. HS2 Ltd has provided full cooperation to Mr Oakervee and his review team and if the government decides to proceed we have a highly-skilled team in place ready to build Britain’s new railway.

“Investment in a state-of-the-art high-speed line is critical for the UK’s low-carbon transport future, will provide much-needed rail capacity up and down the country and is integral to rail projects in the North and Midlands which will help rebalance the UK economy.”

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