A group of peers dealt the Government’s flagship high speed rail project a further blow last night by warning that it should not go ahead without a major rethink and a new assessment of its business case.
A report by the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee said the proposal had “short-changed” the North of England and warned it was “far from convinced” that the HS2 railway could be built within its £55.7bn budget.
Its findings come in the same week that another report, backed by the former Brexit Secretary David Davis, concluded that six other rail projects in Yorkshire and 22 more nationwide could be funded if HS2 were to be scrapped. They include a “supertram” network for Leeds and a new main line between Yorkshire and Carlisle.
The committee of peers, which includes the former chancellors Lord Darling and Lord Lamont, said construction of HS2 should have started in the North rather than the South, and that the trans-Pennine Northern Powerhouse Rail scheme known as HS3 should be completed alongside the high-speed railway.
The Lords also said the cost of the project could be cut by reducing the speed of the trains and moving the London terminus.
A number of questions it raised in a 2015 report “have yet to be answered satisfactorily”, it added.
Phase 1 of HS2 is due to open between London and Birmingham in 2026, before being extended to Manchester and Leeds. HS2 trains will also serve locations on the existing mainline network, including Liverpool, Newcastle, Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Lord Forsyth, who chairs the House of Lords committee, said commuter trains in the North were “badly overcrowded” and that the region was being “short-changed” by existing plans. He went on: “The costs of HS2 do not appear to be under control.
“It is surprising therefore that the Government has not carried out a proper assessment of proposals to reduce the cost of HS2 – such as lowering the speed of the railway or terminating in west London rather than Euston – which the committee recommended in 2015.
“A new appraisal of the project is required. If costs overrun on the first phase of the project, there could be insufficient funding for the rest of the new railway.
“The northern sections of High Speed 2 must not be sacrificed to make up for overspending on the railway’s southern sections.”
HS2 is planned to run up to 18 trains per hour at a top speed of 225mph. But the project’s former chairman, Sir Terry Morgan, has claimed it cannot be built to its current specification on budget.
“I think the triangle of scope, cost and time – something has to give,” he said.
John O’Connell, chief executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, which published this week’s findings on alternative schemes, called the project a “white elephant”.
He said: “We have long argued that HS2 is a waste of taxpayers’ money, and it’s good to see the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee make those same arguments in their report.
“Instead of spending £56bn on a vanity project, the Government should heed our report and look at the many excellent alternatives on offer. Taxpayers are demanding more for their money, so it’s now time to scrap this white elephant in favour of some popular and positive alternatives.”