Labour will build high speed rail linking Newcastle with North West, Ed Balls announces

Shadow Chancellor reveals plans to delay or scrap parts of the planned "HS2" high speed rail scheme and link northern cities together instead

Joe Giddens/PA Wire Shadow chancellor Ed Balls
Shadow chancellor Ed Balls

Labour could dramatically scale back plans for a new high speed rail network - and build a new line linking the North East and North West instead, Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls has revealed.

He said Labour would build a new line to link the east and west of England.

And unlike the existing proposed network, which is due to stop just south of York, Labour’s proposed line would go to Newcastle.

But Labour would ask “big questions” about whether existing plans for high speed lines between Birmingham and Manchester, and Birmingham and Leeds, made any sense.

The comments, in an interview with regional newspapers at Westminster, are a major policy announcement in the run-up to the general election on May 7.

Labour had previously backed proposals for the high speed rail line known as HS2, which could cost more than £50 billion, even though Mr Balls was known to have doubts about it.

He was speaking after a cross-party House of Lords inquiry warned that the Government had failed to “make a convincing case” for the high speed rail line known as HS2, and concluded that improving east-west rail links might do more good for the economy.

CGI issued by HS2 of the Birmingham and Fazeley viaduct
CGI issued by HS2 of the Birmingham and Fazeley viaduct

Labour will press ahead with plans to build a new line between London and Birmingham, with work due to begin in 2017, although Mr Balls said he would want to review costs to ensure taxpayers were getting value for money.

But it will put the brakes on the second phase of the project, which extends the line from Birmingham to Leeds and Manchester and was due to begin construction in the mid 2020s.

Instead, Mr Balls said Labour would bring adopt plans similar to the so-called HS3, a proposed new line linking the North East and North West - but would build this line first and ensure it included Newcastle.

The Shadow Chancellor said he would ask Sir David Higgins, Executive Chairman of HS2 Ltd, to examine whether the proposed second phase of the line offered the “best connectivity and best jobs and investment opportunities for Liverpool and Hull and Newcastle as well.”

He said: “I will want to be discussing how we can improve east west links with David Higgins from day one and I think that is something we get on with quickly while we ask big questions about the second phase of HS2.”

He added: “The idea that we wait to do east west until after we have done the second phase of north south is topsy turvey,

“It has no economic or business logic at all.”

Chancellor George Osborne has also said he supports HS3 but there are no firm plans to build it and, as things stand, construction could only begin after HS2 is completed in 2033, partly because there are not enough engineers to build two major rail projects at once.

Chancellor George Osborne
Chancellor George Osborne

Mr Balls said: “I don’t understand this proposal for HS3. Why would you decide to spend 20 years improving north-south links before, finally, in the third phase, coming to east-west?

“I think George Osborne has got this wrong.

“And our view is that it shouldn’t be HS3 - it should be done before the second phase of HS2.

“I think getting on and doing east-west now is the priority.

“And it shouldn’t be Manchester to Leeds only.”

The Shadow Chancellor said services would run to Newcastle, and suggested a line could also link West Midlands cities such as Birmingham with East Midlands cities such as Nottingham.

“There is actually a big economic need to link east west, and I’m thinking about Nottingham, Birmingham, Newcastle as being part of that east-west network as well.

“The idea that improving links between Birmingham, Nottingham, Leeds and Newcastle, that that should wait until after we have done HS2, I don’t think makes sense.”

Last month transport authorities in the north of England, working together as Transport for the North, drew up a range of options for a new east-west rail line across the Pennines.

And the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee, which includes include former Newcastle City Council leader Lord Shipley, urged MPs to block legislation allowing construction of the line known as HS2 until the Government can prove it has seriously considered other options – including improving connections between cities in the north of England first.

The Committee said the Government had failed to make a convincing case for building the £50 billion rail line - and had failed to consider whether improving east-west links was a better option than HS2 for encouraging growth in the north.”

It continued: “As east-west links are currently poor and north-south links are already good, there is a strong case for investment to improve the former as the benefits to be derived from improving journeys between cities in the north are likely to be greater than the benefits from improving north-south links.”

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