Doubts are continuing to swirl around the future of HS2, with a new paper from free market think tank the Adam Smith Institute calling on the government to abandon the multi-million pound project being strongly rebutted by leading northern transport figures.
The news comes just days after northern politicians reacted angrily to a report in the Financial Times that claimed the HS2 rail route to Leeds and Sheffield could potentially be scrapped under cost-cutting plans to be recommended by the Oakervee Review later this autumn.
The Adam Smith report argues for a rethink on the UK’s rail policy, and sets out a number of less costly alternatives to HS2, including upgrading existing routes with new signalling, doubling the number of tracks, reopening mothballed lines, and timetable redesigns.
New conventional high-speed links between major cities like Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham, upgraded northern sections of the mainlines and reduced bottlenecks would, the think tank argues, altogether cost less than the projected £88bn pricetag for HS2.
Adrian Quine, report author, said: “HS2 has become the most out of control project of our generation. There is no disputing that the UK needs new rail infrastructure but HS2 does not deliver what it claims. It is ideologically driven, over engineered and will not solve the problems facing rail travellers today. So much can be achieved with our existing network rather than applying an HS2 sledgehammer to crack a nut.”
Matthew Lesh, head of research at the Adam Smith Institute, said: “HS2 is a massive white elephant, but it’s not too late to abandon this project that’s over budget and missing deadlines before it causes any more national embarrassment. It’s time to say goodbye to the failed HS2 model and think of innovative, cost-effective solutions to deliver the railway network of the future.”
However, the think tank’s claims were strongly rebutted by leading northern transport figures. Sir Howard Bernstein, a member of the Northern Powerhouse independent panel review into HS2, said: “Just because this commentator thinks this is a poorly managed project does not mean its essential purpose is wrong. They at least have the good grace to admit what many opponents of HS2 fail to recognise - that there is an impending capacity problem which has to be addressed. His solution however is so typical of the professional or expert establishment largely based in the south east. Give them some capacity uplift by modernising a few junctions. Just like West Coast Main Line several years ago. Years of misery for a marginal benefit. Sorry, this won’t do! The north deserves better and will continue to campaign to ensure we secure a proper share of national resources and meet our ambitions so that we achieve our full economic potential.”
Henri Murison, director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, added: “To truly rebalance Britain, we need substantially increased capacity on our rail network. The north is not going to stand for cancelling HS2 in order to pay for a list of schemes which go nowhere near increasing capacity to the extent we need, and certainly don’t address the challenges of travelling between the Midlands and northern cities like Sheffield and Leeds, which are an economic blight and prevent people being able to travel between these key economic centres.”
The report comes just days after leading northern politicians expressed anger at suggestions that the HS2 rail route to Leeds and Sheffield could be scrapped under cost-cutting plans, with the new network halted in the Midlands, according to the Financial Times.
Hilary Benn, Labour MP for Leeds Central, said: “The government needs to understand that we will not accept HS2 to Leeds being cancelled. The north has been denied its fair share of transport investment for too long.”
Judith Blake, leader of Leeds city council and transport lead for the West Yorkshire Combined Authority, said there would be “grave long-term consequences” for the economy in the north and east of the country if HS2 is not delivered in full.
She said: “It would sacrifice the £600m of annual GDP growth forecast from better connections between Leeds and Birmingham alone, while also putting at risk the expected 50,000 additional jobs HS2 would create in the Leeds city region.”
In September, transport secretary Grant Shapps published a report which suggested the project could be delayed by up to five years and run £26bn over budget. The warning was based on the results of a separate review carried out by HS2 Ltd, the government-funded firm building the railway.