An anti-high speed rail project (HS2) banner is seen nailed to a fence post near the village of Pickmere, northern England, yesterday.
LONDON: The government’s plan for a high-speed railway connecting London with Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds is beset by spiralling costs, a lack of expertise and unrealistic delivery timetables, a parliamentary report has concluded.
The public accounts committee (PAC) says the Department for Transport has “not yet presented a convincing case” for building the £50bn HS2 project, which will take 20 years to complete in two phases.
The project, which received support from David Cameron during his G20 trip last week, has been panned by the committee, which found that £185m had already been spent on consultants — a figure that is expected to rise to £500m by the time building work begins in early 2016.
Pointing to the fiasco surrounding the franchise award of the Westcoast mainline in October, the 56-page report, published yesterday, says the department is suffering from a “shortage of the commercial skills it needs to protect taxpayers’ interests” and noted that costs for the first phase of the project had risen by almost £5bn to £21.4bn.
On Friday, the prime minister threw his weight behind the plans, saying that he was “passionately in favour” of the multibillion-pound scheme, and urged doubters to “think big”. The report heavily criticises the department’s predictions for the project’s benefits. It finds that after overestimating economic benefits by £8bn through a double-counting error, the department has forecast smaller rises in commuter numbers than expected. These latest figures have yet to be taken into account by HS2 planners and would push down estimated economic gains.
“So far the department has made decisions based on fragile numbers, out-of-date data and assumptions which do not reflect real life,” it said.
Describing the deadline for passing HS2 legislation by March 2015 as “unrealistic and overly ambitious”, the committee predicted that each month legislation is delayed will cost £7m-£10m.
Transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin rejected the PAC findings, insisting that the case was “absolutely clear” and that without HS2, key rail routes would be “overwhelmed” by rising passenger numbers. “The project will free up vital space on our railways for passengers and freight, generate hundreds of thousands of jobs, and deliver better connections between our towns and cities,” he said.