Transport secretary Phillip Hammond has kicked off a six month public consultation into controversial government plans to build a £32bn high speed rail network linking London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds.
Consultation is now underway on the detailed route of the first phase of the High Speed Two (HS2) line between London and Birmingham, alongside consultation on the with the government’s overarching high speed rail strategy.
The plans immediately came under attack from residents’ groups and local councils along the route, who say there is no economic case for the scheme.
The economic case for the line, published this week alongside the public consultation documents, shows that the benefit to cost ratio for the London to Birmingham section has been cut from 2.4:1 to 2.0:1.
Benefits factored in include the release of additional capacity on the existing West Coast Main Line (WCML). Network Rail believes that without HS2 the WCML will reach capacity by 2024. A direct link to Britain’s existing high speed line, High Speed 1 - which runs from London St Pancras to the Channel Tunnel - is also proposed as part of the initial phase of the scheme, to allow travel from cities linked to the high speed network to the continent.
The government hopes to start building the first phase in 2015 and open it in 2026. Legs to Manchester and Leeds would be finished by 2033.
Business groups including the CBI and councils in Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester are big supporters of the scheme. The line would bring Birmingham within 49 minutes of London, and Manchester and Leeds within 80 minutes or less. Construction of a direct link to Heathrow airport – which, under the proposals, would be built at the same time as lines from Birmingham to Leeds and Manchester - would enable direct high speed services to run to and from the airport, providing an attractive alternative to many short-haul air journeys and bringing central Birmingham within an hour of Heathrow, and Manchester and Leeds within around 70 and 75 minutes respectively.
Running 14 or more trains per hour, each with up to 1,100 seats, the government claims high speed rail could shift as many as six million air trips and nine million road trips a year onto rail.
Based on this the government has calculated the overall benefit cost to ratio of the full Y-shaped route to be 2.6:1. This is based on the route delivering benefits over a 60 year period with a net present value of £43.7bn against a net present cost over the same period of building and operating the line of £17.1bn - calculated as total capital and operating costs of £44.3bn less fares revenues of £27.2bn.
CBI director general John Cridland said there were real benefits to the line, as long as certain conditions are met.
“The government must commit to the full network, which links London and Birmingham to Leeds and Manchester, and connects to international gateways and networks, such as Heathrow and High Speed 1,” he said. “Other vital capital investment in transport infrastructure must go hand in hand with this.”
He added that high speed rail must result in climate change benefits, and lead to an increase in rail freight.
Environmental groups staunchly oppose the scheme, despite recent changes to its alignment.
Last year Hammond ordered around 50% of the route between London and Birmingham to be adjusted, including moving it away from sensitive sites and settlements, lowering the line and using green bridges and tunnels to reduce noise and visual impacts. In the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), all but 1.9km would be either in tunnel, in cutting and/or alongside the A413 main road.
If the proposed line is taken forward, an environmental impact assessment would be carried out as part of the preparations for presenting a hybrid bill to Parliament in 2013.