The Government’s £42bn high-speed rail line has been described as the “emperor’s new clothes” as doubts grow that it will bring any benefit to the North East.
Opposition to the line is mounting after its estimated cost rose by more than £8bn, serious doubts were raised that its first phase would be open even by 2026 and the number of jobs set to be created is expected to be downgraded.
Already this week Lord Mandelson has called for the project to be dropped, with the former Business Secretary and North East MP among the growing number saying the money could be better used to upgrade the existing lines.
Now other MPs from the region have joined the chorus of dissent, with Shadow Defence Minister Kevan Jones accusing both Labour and Tory transport ministers of being “starry-eyed” about the scheme.
Despite Government promises that the line will head North, current plans only see the Y-shaped route go as far as Manchester and Leeds, before trains then slow down to travel on existing railways lines to Newcastle and Scotland.
Durham North MP Mr Jones has said he agreed with the former business secretary Lord Mandelson’s claims that the High Speed 2 rail link could divert investment away from the North, damaging the very regions it was intended to help.
Mr Jones said: “I found myself when I opened the paper this morning in a very difficult position because I found myself possibly agreeing with Lord Mandelson, which must be a first.
“I was feeling whether I should take some advice about whether I was believing what I was reading, but some of the points he raised are perfectly legitimate points to raise.
“The investment which is going to High Speed 2 is going to be enormous and I have to say that for regions like the North East, there is going to be very little benefit, even in the long-term in terms of when finally the high speed route gets to Newcastle or beyond.”
Mr Jones added: “I hope that I do not sound too much like the little boy who pointed out that the emperor had no clothes on, but I have seen a great many projects such as this, and it is clear to me that the Government have become starry-eyed about HS2.
“In the last Parliament, Lord Adonis became starry-eyed in the same way, saying that this was the big idea that would solve the problems of the United Kingdom’s railway network. I am sorry, but I do not agree.”
In a wide-ranging broadside the MP went on to say: “I fear that we will have exactly what we experienced in the early days of the channel tunnel, when trains travelled at high speed through northern France and then came to a slow stop at the other end, crawling into Waterloo.
“The idea that someone would travel to Birmingham or Manchester by high-speed rail and then continue the journey on the current CrossCountry network is ridiculous.”
Lib Dem MP Ian Swales (Redcar), also warned that high speed rail could suck money out of the region and benefit London.
He said: “Are you aware of research from the continent that shows that high-speed rail systems tend to pull more activity to the capital city? The research from the continent shows that the cities on the high-speed rail line lose economic activity to the capital.”
David Prout, director general for HS2 in the Department for Transport, defended the proposals, saying: “It is absolutely clear that the cities of the North, to a city, are clamouring for HS2 to go ahead. Our estimates of job generation show a reasonably modest number of jobs created on the back of HS2.
“The work by Core Cities and by individual cities in the north of Britain shows a much greater increase in jobs on the back of HS2. Core Cities say that in the environs of the high-speed stations, 400,000 jobs will be generated, with up to one million jobs supported in the wider area by HS2.”
Earlier this week, Lord Mandelson revealed he no longer supports HS2, and urged ministers and his Labour colleagues to consider spending the money on upgrading the East Coast and West Coast Main Lines instead.
He said: “Politicians should not be afraid to think again about a project whose estimated cost has just risen again by a quarter, to £42.6bn.”
It follows the Government’s announcement revelaing that the cost of the project has shot up by a fifth, from £34.5bn to £42.6bn, including £14.4bn in contingency.
Changes that have driven costs up include extra tunnelling under the M6 .
For regions like the North East, there is going to be very little benefit, even in the long-term
HIGH SPEED 2
High Speed 2 is a planned high-speed railway due to link London with the Midlands and the North - though not as far as the North East.
The scheme was first suggested under the Labour Government but has since been taken on by the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition and is supported in principle by the three main UK political parties.
Backers argue that the line would create increase business productivity by billions and lead to benefits in the regions it reaches.
But there has been fierce opposition from environmentalists, communities that would be passed through by the road and those who say that its increasing costs far outweigh the benefits.
Among those backing High Speed 2 are the North East Chamber of Commerce. In a Government consultation, there were 613 responses from people and organisations in the North East, with 86% backing the plans.
Newcastle Airport initially backed the scheme but later withdrew on the basis the North East would not benefit in the same way as other northern cities including Leeds and Manchester. Former regional minister Nick Brown has also been a long-time opponent of the scheme.