The Transport Secretary has called on Britain to hold its nerve as he promised the biggest rail project in generations will bring sweeping benefits to every part of Yorkshire.
As the Government fightback against the HS2’s vociferous opponents gathered pace yesterday, Patrick McLoughlin warned the public against listening to “scare stories” about the scheme’s spiralling costs which he claimed were often “designed to mislead”.
Promising the new 225mph line will be built on time and on budget, the Derbyshire Dales MP used his keynote speech at the Institute of Civil Engineers to meet some of the criticisms of HS2 head-on.
Crucially, he moved to address fears that the new high-speed line linking Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester with Birmingham and London will have little benefit to people living outside those cities.
Arguing that building a new railway will free up space dramatically for extra services on current rail routes, Mr McLoughlin said: “The point about HS2 is you won’t have to travel on it to gain from the better transport system and economic growth it will support.
“People who never use the new line will still gain from more services up and down Britain. (There will be) more room for local trains; more space for direct services to London from places that can’t get them today; more space for freight trains, to free up our motorways.”
His speech reflected concern in Downing Street that the public has failed to grasp that the central reason for a new North-South rail line is to add much-needed capacity to Britain’s overcrowded rail network – not simply to cut journey times between different parts of the country.
“Since 1970 the total distance we travel in Britain has more or less doubled,” Mr McLoughlin said. “But in Britain we have built very little infrastructure to support growth. In Britain we try to patch up what we have already got.
“We haven’t built a new main rail line north of London for almost 120 years. But there is a point when patching up isn’t enough.”
The Transport Secretary’s speech follows strong statements of support for HS2 over the past few days from a string of senior Government figures including David Cameron, George Osborne and Nick Clegg, as the coalition seeks to shore up support for the flagship scheme in the face of mounting opposition.
In a sign of the mood at Number 10, Mr Cameron said: “The fightback on HS2 begins today.”
Mr McLoughlin admitted that recent weeks “have seen old criticisms return”, but insisted that while some of the opposition is well researched and well-meaning, “some of it is ill-informed and deliberately misleading”.
Such opposition to a major infrastructure project was inevitable, he added, highlighting the battles successive governments faced when embarking on projects such as the West Coast main line and the Channel Tunnel – which was abandoned in 1975 before finally being built two decades later.
“Are we sure the call for retreat (on HS2) amounts to anything more than a repetition of a national loss of nerve?” he asked.
Mr McLoughlin also stressed the wide economic benefits of the line, citing a new report by KPMG which suggested HS2 could add £15bn-a-year to Britain’s GDP – including £1.9bn in Yorkshire.
Mr McLoughlin said these figures should allay the concerns of council leaders in Wakefield and Bradford that their cities will see little benefit from HS2.
“This report shows all parts of the North will benefit from this, longer-term,” he said.