ED Miliband has stepped in to insist Labour will still back high-speed rail lines from London to Yorkshire after his transport spokesman appeared to suggest the party could dump their commitment to the policy.
The Labour leader said the party “remains supporters” of a high-speed rail network, a policy of which he was a key advocate in Government.
His intervention follows comments by Shadow Transport Secretary Maria Eagle that “nothing [is] ruled in or out” until a party transport review is complete and said other ways of relieving overcrowding would be examined.
Mr Miliband spoke out as the Government prepares to launch a consultation on the first stage of what is intended to be a £33bn national network, a line from London to Birmingham. A future branch to South Yorkshire and Leeds – to be built at the same time as one to Manchester – could cut journey times between West Yorkshire and the capital to 80 minutes and bring in billions of pounds to the region’s economy.
Some of the country’s most senior business leaders backed the plans last week after a vocal campaign from protesters who oppose the route through the Chilterns and question the economic benefits.
Asked about the apparent division between him and Ms Eagle, Mr Miliband told the Yorkshire Post: “We’re both in the same position on this.
“We see the strong case for high speed rail – we were the people in government who brought in the scheme and we continue to have that view – but we’re obviously having a policy review to look at all of the issues.
“I don’t think anybody should be in any doubt that we were the people who brought in high speed rail and we remain supporters of it.”
Although stopping short of a cast-iron guarantee that Labour would proceed with the plans, his pledge is far stronger than comments made by Ms Eagle in recent interviews.
In one interview she said: “The Tory-led government has delayed the completion of vital rail projects including Crossrail and Thameslink in London, cut new carriages planned by Labour and hit commuters with massive fare increases.
“At the same time they plan to only spend £750m of the £17.5bn cost of the proposed new high-speed line to Birmingham. Labour will next month launch a root and branch review of our transport policy with nothing ruled in or out.
“It would be irresponsible to make cast-iron spending commitments for beyond 2015 before we have listened to the public and come to conclusions about our future priorities.”
Insisting she was not abandoning passengers forced to endure overcrowded trains in the north, she added: “There will be other options to tackle overcrowding that we will examine in our policy review.”
Before the election, Labour – under then Transport Secretary Andrew Adonis – had backed the Y-shaped network, with a single line from London to Birmingham with two initial branches north, one through Manchester and the north west and the other through the East Midlands, South Yorkshire and Leeds.
After the coalition was established, they adopted the same plan, although it could be 2030 before the line to Yorkshire is open.
Any trains would be able to use conventional tracks as well, so areas further north are able to benefit from the higher speeds for at least part of the journey. Transport bosses at Metro, West Yorkshire’s passenger transport authority, are adamant the project must go ahead.
Metro chairman Coun Chris Greaves said: “Independent research commissioned by Metro and South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive showed that by reducing journey times between Leeds and London to just 80 minutes, a high-speed Yorkshire link would deliver up to £2.3bn of productivity benefits to the local economy.”
Coun Greaves added: “This project is going to have an enormously positive long-term effect for our region.”