Full Speed Ahead - or Maybe Not; the Commons Transport Committee Yesterday Published Its Report into Government Plans for a New High-Speed Rail Link. Political Editor WILLIAM GREEN Reports

Article excerpt

THERE is a good case for a high-speed rail network, linking London and the major cities of the Midlands, the North and Scotland: so says the report into the UK's planned second high-speed rail route.

The London-Birmingham section of the pounds 34bn project is due to open in 2026. A phase two, Y-shaped extension taking in Manchester and Leeds would be ready around 2032-33.

Ministers have said the plans have huge economic benefits - they want the link to continue further north and to Scotland, but have not offered any firm pledges.

Reading the detail, the Commons transport committee seemed to hedge its bets on whether the scheme will be an economic success.

It warned ministers must tailor their plans to ensure benefits are spread nationwide, and said: "The evidence we have received and our visit to France and Germany lead us to two conclusions about the potential of HS2 to stimulate national and regional growth.

"First, it is obvious that the economic impacts of high-speed rail can vary and are not easily predicted.

"Only time will tell whether or not HS2 will, for example, help to rebalance the economy and reduce the North-South divide."

The report added: "Our judgment is that HS2 could indeed be the catalyst for these economic benefits.

"Our second conclusion, from the experience of France and elsewhere, is that if high-speed rail is to realise its full potential, the Government's plans for HS2 must be accompanied by complementary regional and local strategies for transport, housing, skills and em- ployment." Currently, that responsibility lies with local economic partnerships, transport authorities and combinations of such bodies. "Support, not least with funding, will be needed from the Government. We call upon the Government to recognise this as a priority," said the committee. MPs also expressed concern about capacity to the north of Lichfield in the interim period between construction phases and lack of HS2 services to Leeds and beyond until 2032. "We recommend that these aspects be considered further, including the possibility of a connection between HS2 and the Birmingham-Derby line and Midland main line in phase one to provide access from the North East." And while the scheme had all-party support, they also recognised it was not universally supported by MPs or the public. MPs criticised sniping from either sides of the argument with terms like nimby, Luddites and white elephants being thrown across the barricades. Former North East Minister Nick Brown said: "I don't think it will have a transformative effect on the North East. It will come to the North East late, if it comes to us at all. "The main beneficiaries will be those who travel on the London-Birmingham route. In my opinion it is a lot of money for what it is." The Labour MP for Newcastle East said a better alternative to increase capacity would be to invest in the existing rail network and in par- From17 ticular the East Coast Main Line. …