Aug 23 2013
The controversial HS2 rail project has come under fire from another senior Labour figure amid warnings that soaring costs could turn it into a "nightmare".
Alistair Darling, who served as chancellor and transport secretary, said the economic benefits were "highly contentious" and there was a risk that funding would be drained from the rest of the network. However, current Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin defended the scheme, insisting it still had David Cameron's backing and there was a cross-party consensus in favour.
The Government has estimated the cost of HS2, which will see 225mph trains running from London to Birmingham by around 2026, at £50 billion including rolling stock. But Institute for Economic Affairs research earlier this week suggested the eventual bill would be £80 billion, and it has been reported that the Treasury is working on a figure of £73 billion.
Support among the Labour hierarchy appears to be fading, with former business secretary Lord Mandelson voicing opposition recently and shadow chancellor Ed Balls insisting the party would not sign a "blank cheque" for the project.
In an article for The Times, Mr Darling said: "It is time to revisit the case for HS2. It runs the risk of substantially draining the railway of money vital for investment over the next 30 years. My experience in government also makes me suspicious of big projects that can easily run out of control. Politicians are always excited by 'visionary' schemes. One thing I have learnt is that transport, rather like banking, is at its best when it is boring. That is when it tends to work. Political visions can easily become nightmares."
Mr Darling said it was true that there were capacity problems on the route from London to the Midlands and north-west England but added that there were also severe capacity problems on commuter routes particularly in the South East.
He went on: "And why high-speed trains? Certainly it's handy to cut the journey time between Birmingham and London by half an hour. But at what cost?
"The economic benefit that is claimed will come from this is highly contentious. The business case depends on an assumption that passengers aren't productive - that is, that they don't work on the train. That may be true on a commuter train but not on long-haul intercity services. Arguably, more work is done on the train than in the office."
A number of Conservatives have also expressed doubts about the scheme. However, Tory MP Mr McLoughlin said: "I'm not sure cross-party support is weakening. The Labour Party are very much in support of HS2 and certainly when I met the core city leaders where HS2 will serve, all of them Labour Party members, they are very much in support."
He added: "This scheme is very important to the infrastructure of this country and all big infrastructure projects are controversial. No doubt Alistair Darling knew that when he signed it off as chancellor of the Exchequer. The Chancellor and the Prime Minister have been totally in support of this project and there is no problem with support that I'm receiving from other colleagues in Government."