North East MPs are asking questions of ministers after claims the HS2 rail scheme will cut journey times by less than half the amount claimed.
According to the Government’s latest business case for the £50bn scheme, it will bring the current two hours and 52 minute journey between Newcastle and London down to two hours and 19 - a saving of 33 minutes.
But a report by the Department for Transport shows the figures fail to take into account the benefits of new 140mph Hitachi trains, that are being built in County Durham at a cost of £1.2bn, which enter service in 2019 and should reduce the trip to two hours and 35 minutes - making the HS2 benefit just 16 minutes.
Berwick MP Sir Alan Beith said he had written to the Secretary of State for Transport Patrick McLoughlin at the end of September asking about whether the faster speeds of the Hitachi trains had been taken into account but he was still waiting for a reply.
“The Government has already programmed faster locally-built trains and track improvements for the East Coast Main Line but it is not clear that the North East and Borders will gain much in journey times when HS2 trains eventually continue northwards from Leeds, and in the meantime I have concerns that investment may be attracted to the Midlands, South Yorkshire and the North West at the expense of the North East,” he said.
A Department for Transport spokesman said the figures in its business case “illustrate the benefits of HS2 against current journey times” and that for many places “the reductions will be significant.”
However, he said that capacity had always been the “key benefit” of HS2 and that “Britain cannot afford to leave the economic future of great cities like Manchester and Birmingham to an overcrowded, 200-year-old railway.”
But even the economic case for the controversial line, linking London to Leeds and Manchester via Birmingham by 2032, has been cut back in the latest draft of the Government’s document, with the latest estimates arguing that the route will generate £2.30 for every pound spent - down from £2.50, as ministers now accept that businessmen can work while travelling by train.
Newcastle North MP Catherine McKinnell said she could understand the concerns that HS2 – particularly in terms of journey time reductions – has been overplayed, particularly when the numbers appear to have changed on several occasions.
But she said that it still has the potential to bring great benefits to the North East.
“This is potentially a massive infrastructure investment for the UK which could benefit large parts of the North,” she said.
“As with all projects like this which involve significant public investment, we need to closely monitor costs as the project progresses to ensure it represents value for money for taxpayers at each stage.”
Yesterday Newcastle’s Labour leader Nick Forbes joined council colleagues from other big cities to urge his party’s leadership in London to back HS2.
Writing to Labour’s Shadow Transport Secretary Mary Creagh he warned that the rail line was a “once-in-a-generation infrastructure investment for the whole of the UK, and, in particular, the North of England”.
He said HS2 “will bring economic regeneration and opportunity to cities and regions across the UK, in particular driving growth outside of London and the South East.”