Further divides over plans for a high-speed train line from London to the north have been exposed within Labour after former business secretary Lord Mandelson branded the scheme a ‘political trophy project’.
In a withering attack on the HS2 scheme, Lord Mandelson warned it was based on ‘flimsy evidence’ and would ‘suck the very life blood’ out of the rest of the country’s rail network.
Speaking in the House of Lords yesterday, the Labour peer said his party was right to have become ‘more sceptical’ about the multi-billion pound project.
But Labour frontbench transport spokesman Lord Davies of Oldham denied there had been any ‘reneging’ on support for the project from the party.
“The Opposition supports HS2. We believe a new north-south line is needed,” he said.
“We didn’t ask the nation to embark on this major construction because we wanted some kind of ‘trophy’ but because there is a real need.”
Shadow chancellor Ed Balls questioned last month whether the HS2 rail project was ‘the best way to spend £50bn for the future of our country’ –leading some to speculate that a Labour government would cancel it if costs rose.
But Lord Davies told peers Labour was ‘reasserting our commitment to HS2’.
Transport Minister Baroness Kramer swiftly welcomed Labour’s fresh backing for the project, insisting it must stretch across party politics.
Lord Mandelson had previously backed the plans but announced a U-turn earlier this year because of escalating costs.
“I have been an ardent pro-railway supporter all my adult life. But it is precisely for that reason that I do not support HS2,” he told peers yesterday.
“I think the sheer cost of it will suck the very life blood out of the rest of the country’s rail system.”
He added that the high speed line was a ‘political trophy project justified on flimsy evidence to be about modernity and prosperity’.
There were dozens of transport projects urgently needed across the country which would make a ‘very significant economic and social impact’ and could be ‘extracted’ from the HS2 price tag.
Lord Mandelson warned there would be nearly £8bn of cuts in the existing intercity network if the scheme went ahead.
But a Downing Street spokesman said: “We need to invest in high-speed rail in this country.
“It is essential for solving the capacity crisis and research from KPMG has shown there could be a £15bn annual boost to the economy.
“The Prime Minister is clear in his support for HS2 and wants the process to go on and the railway to be built.”
Lady Kramer said it was nearly impossible to find new ‘train paths’ on existing routes but HS2 would provide the additional capacity for passengers and freight as well as helping to close the ‘regional divide’.
She said the ‘upper limit’ of the cost was £42.6bn, including a contingency of £14.4bn.
“So we have genuine scope to bear down on that number.”
The government was committed to generous compensation for those affected by the scheme, which was the ‘most significant transformation of our transport infrastructure for a generation’.
Denying it was a ‘vanity project’, Lady Kramer said: “This is a time for ambition.”