After Alistair Darling became the latest senior political figure to come out against High Speed 2 (HS2), pressure is rising on the government and the opposition to withdraw their support for the project. Darling wrote in yesterday's Times: "The next government and the one after that will be very short of money to spend on the infrastructure we desperately need. To commit ourselves to spend so much on a project which rules out other major schemes seems foolish."
In an interview on BBC News following the former chancellor's intervention, Ed Balls refused to guarantee that Labour would support the new £42.6bn rail line in its general election manifesto. He said: "There’s no blank cheque from a Labour Treasury for HS2 — it’s got to be value for money. If the case is not strong enough, if you don’t see the gains, if, as we’ve seen in recent weeks and months, the cost is going up and up and up, that’s something which we have to keep under review."
But in a piece for the New Statesman, Andrew Adonis, the former transport secretary and the architect of HS2, warns that it would be an "act of national self-mutilation" to cancel the project.
The Labour peer, who is leading a review of growth policy for the party, writes that "the case for High Speed Two is as strong now as when Labour committed itself to the project in March 2010, and virtually none of the arguments of the latest critics, including the Institute of Economic Affairs, affect it."
He adds: "[T]he key justification is not speed but capacity. There will be an acute shortage of transport capacity from the 2020s to convey freight, commuters and other passengers into and between the major conurbations of London, the West Midlands, the East Midlands and South and West Yorkshire. Since there is no viable plan, let alone political will, to build new motorways between these places, or to dramatically increase air traffic between them, this additional capacity must largely be met by rail or Britain will grind to a halt."
After Darling suggested that the £42.6bn cost would be better spent on upgrading existing lines and other smaller scale infrastructure projects, he points out: "Detailed costings that I commissioned in 2009 suggested that to secure just two-thirds of HS2's extra capacity by upgrading existing lines would cost more in cash terms than building HS2. So there is no free lunch - or pot of gold which can be diverted to other projects in anything but the very short-term, with more costly consequences thereafter."
Adonis also rejects the former chancellor's claim that the economic benefits of the new 225-mph line, which will run between London and Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, are "highly contentious". The former chancellor argued that "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." But Adonis writes: "Debates about the benefits of faster journey times to Birmingham, and whether or not business travellers work productively on trains, are beside the point. If the additional capacity is required, it ought to be provided in the most cost-effective manner.
"However, the additional benefits of HS2 are considerable. As HS2 proceeds further north, the time savings become steadily greater: nearly an hour off every journey between London and Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds. The connectivity benefits are also dramatic. HS2 transforms links between the Midlands and the north, as well as between London and those conurbations. HS2 includes a direct interchange with Crossrail the new east-west underground line through London, opening in 2019 which will convey passengers to the West End, the City and Canary Wharf in a fraction of the time, and with far less than congestion than presently."
Adonis warns Ed Miliband not to repeat the mistakes of Harold Wilson's Labour government, which cancelled plans for the Channel Tunnel and the new London airport at Maplin Sands that it inherited from the Heath administration in 1974. He writes: "[T]he temptation for Labour to claim it is 'saving' £42bn by proposing to cancel a 'Tory' project will be intense. It was at a similarly early phase in their construction that the incoming 1974 Labour government cancelled the Channel Tunnel and the new London airport at Maplin Sands in the Thames Estuary, inherited from the Heath government. They were dubbed 'Tory extravagance' although, like HS2, their origins lay in the previous Labour government and there was nothing remotely right-wing about them.
"These were stupid short-termist decisions. In the case of Maplin, the last best opportunity to relocate the UK's principal international gateway to a far larger and more suitable site was thrown away. We are still paying the price in the current impasse over a third runway at Heathrow when the international airports serving Amsterdam. Paris and Frankfurt have six, four and four runways respectively.
"It would be a similar act of national self-mutilation to cancel HS2 in 2015, six years into the project."
During a Q&A session with Labour activists in Edinburgh yesterday, Ed Miliband said that he remained a supporter of HS2, describing it as "part of being a modern country". But he added: "We have to scrutinise it for value for money and we are going to keep doing that and that’s something we do with any government project."
An updated cost-benefit analysis of the project, the budget for which has risen from £32bn to £42.6bn, will be published by the government before the end of the year. George Osborne is reportedly planning a campaign this autumn to shore up political support for the line.