Kate Proctor: North East says 'no' to high speed rail

As David Cameron calls for political consensus behind the HS2 rail link, people in the North East issued a resounding 'no' to the project

The potential HS2 train design
The potential HS2 train design

It is billed as the ‘new backbone of Britain’, the answer to the North-South economic divide, and astonishingly it would be the first railway line to be built north of London in 120 years - yet whichever way it is billed, HS2 has yet to convince the people of the North East.

A poll of people in the region reveals that the Government’s £50bn high speed rail line is not perceived as being able to bring positive benefits to the very people it is supposed to be reaching out to.

The Conservative party’s flagship infrastructure project is presented as a means by which regions may be brought into a more equal financial partnership with the capital.

Journey times to London are set to be reduced, allegedly encouraging investment outside the M25 and into the great uptapped potential resource of the North East and North West of England, and one day, perhaps even Scotland.

However An Other Lines of Enquiry North poll, using their in-house panel, Panelbase, found that 60% of those in the region asked do not believe the project’s promised shortened travel times and potential economic injection justify the scheme’s £50bn cost.

A further 59% said they didn’t feel HS2 would bring the same benefts to the North as it will to the South.

Even nationally, the route’s impact on the North East of England isn’t viewed positively with 41% of people stating that the impact in the North will not be felt as keenly as in the South and 44% claiming they had no idea what the benefit would between both regions.

Men are slightly more negative than women on its potential with 63% of males compared to 59% of females claiming its affects would be experienced in the North East. Of all of those polled it was the those over 65 who were the most unreceptive to it having any benefit at all with 75% certain that the North will not gain as much as the South.

Pensioners weren’t swayed by journey times or financial gain either with 62% surveyed answering its £50bn price-tag isn’t worth it.

People aged 18 to 24 were most likely to say they didn’t know what the long-term benefits of the trainline would be would be. The poll comes as David Cameron said he was “passionate” about the HS2 scheme, which will initially link London with Birmingham before being extended into a Y-shaped route also reaching Manchester and Leeds.

Newcastle and Darlington will be linked into the system however trains will travel at normal speeds after Leeds on the East Coast mainline.

Speaking at the Confederation of British Industry’s annual conference in London yesterday, David Cameron is adamant of its benefits for the North.

He said: “We need to build new railway lines in our country. We haven’t built a line north of London for 120 years.

“When people challenge me about HS2, I say this: the West Coast Main Line is full. Thousands of our fellow-countrymen are standing every day as they come into Euston or go into Birmingham. We need to build another West Coast Main Line.

“So the choice for us as a country is: do we build one of the old-fashioned Victorian-style lines, or do we build one of these new high-speed lines? The cost difference is 9%.”

He also used his speech to call for political consensus behind the HS2 rail link, warning that those who oppose the project are “putting our country’s future at risk”.

The Prime Minister also announced that Sir David Higgins, the new boss of the planned high speed rail link between London and the North, has been tasked with finding ways to cut the estimated £50bn price of the scheme, to drive down costs and “make it affordable for our country”.

However he said it was a vital investment which would ensure growing prosperity is not confined to the South of England but is shared with the North.

Shadow chancellor Ed Balls threw Labour’s support for the project into doubt however by raising concerns about the spiralling costs earlier this year, insisting he would not sign a what would essentially be a ‘blank cheque’. In a clear swipe at Labour, Mr Cameron said: “To people who say there is some other cost-reduction plan we could also have, I say that is nonsense. I think with Sir David Higgins in charge, with the budget we have and the contingency we have, this is a good investment for Britain.

“People who are against it, in my view, are putting our country’s future at risk, they are putting the future of the North of England at risk. We need to have a concerted consensus across business, across politics, that we get behind these large infrastructure projects.”

And he added: “I think it is absolutely right to make this investment. It is going to unite our country, it will help drive economic growth, it will make sure our economy shares growth between the North and South, it will link eight of our 10 biggest cities.”

He rejected arguments that the cost of HS2 will divert investment away from other necessary work on the UK’s transport network, pointing out that the planned spending on the project in the period 2015-20 totals £16 billion - less than a quarter of the £73 billion overall bill for improvements to roads and railways.

CBI president Sir Mike Rake said: “We cannot have every major infrastructure decision continuously re-debated at every turn - as we’re seeing with HS2.

“Undoubtedly, a better effort should be made to communicate the benefits of high speed rail, and this must be positioned within an overall, long-term strategy of what the country needs across all modes of transport.”

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