Work on the UK’s new £56bn HS2 high-speed railway line should be “paused” until the economic case for the project has been made, according to an influential House of Lords committee.
The peers argued in a report published on Thursday that improvements to train services in the north should be prioritised, that the costs of HS2 were out of control, there was no need for such high speeds and little evidence of serious overcrowding on the existing route from London to Birmingham to justify the project.
The criticism will add to the mounting questions over the future of HS2, one of the country’s most controversial infrastructure projects in recent history. It has been beset by delays, contract scandals, and concerns over poor management as well as allegations by whistleblowers that parliament was misled on the budget for land purchases.
Several candidates for the Conservative party leadership are calling for HS2 to be scrapped, including one of the frontrunners, former foreign secretary Boris Johnson.
Michael Forsyth, chair of the Lords economic affairs committee, said: “They should press the pause button while they do a new appraisal. People will say this is last minute but we asked them to do this four years ago.”
The peers said that the Department for Transport’s method of appraising large infrastructure projects was “not fit for purpose” and based on dubious analysis, essentially asking small samples of business rail travellers on train platforms “hypothetical questions” about how much they would be willing to pay for quicker journeys.
The research was carried out 15 to 20 years ago, did not correspond to the latest data on passenger numbers, and failed to take into account the impact of new technology, the committee report said.
“We do not believe [this] . . . is the most robust evidence base on which to base a calculation of the benefits that a £55.7bn new railway will bring,” the peers said.
Investment in rail infrastructure in the north should be prioritised over HS2, with money ringfenced to improve connections between cities such as Leeds and Manchester, where services are overcrowded and unreliable, the peers’ report said.
“We think we will end up with a HS2 link to Birmingham, and then we will lose the northern part of the project, which is the most important,” Lord Forsyth said.
In response, HS2 said the line would “generate around £92bn in benefits to the UK economy, with local economic plans forecasting the creation of 500,000 jobs and nearly 90,000 new homes”.
“Work is under way at over 250 locations and the scheme already supports more than 7,000 jobs directly and across our supply chain,” the company added.
The DfT said it “fundamentally disagrees with parts of the report”.
The project does have supporters. In April, 82 northern MPs from different parties wrote to chancellor Philip Hammond demanding that he commit to HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail, a £39bn plan to link the north’s big cities.
The Lords report said that if the government proceeded with the line it should cut costs by reducing the speed of trains and end the line at Old Oak Common in west London rather than Euston because the final section requires expensive and disruptive tunnelling through the capital.
It questioned why HS2 was being built to accommodate trains operating at 400km per hour, which do not yet exist, when the initial maximum operating speed will be 360km an hour, faster than most other train services in the world.
As for the argument that more capacity was needed, it found that peak-time trains between Birmingham and London were not overly busy and that overcrowding was largely on long-distance services on the west coast mainline on cheaper Friday evening and weekend services, where improvements in technology could make a difference.
The peers argued that the project’s budget did “not appear to be under control” and no one seemed to know what the final cost would be, with some people, such as infrastructure expert Michael Byng, estimating the total cost at more than £100bn. The current budget is comprised of almost £27bn for the first section and the remainder for the second phase.
Hundreds of people have also had property seized to make way for the line but have been paid late or are still waiting, in some cases threatening their livelihoods.
More than £4.3bn has been spent on preparation for the first phase of HS2, which will run from London to Birmingham, and is due to open in 2026, according to the report.
But the start of construction has already been delayed until the end of the year, prompting the contractor Balfour Beatty to warn on Tuesday that it would have to lay off staff if work is further delayed.
Legislation to approve the second phase of the project, which would run to Crewe, Manchester and Leeds, has been postponed until 2020 at the earliest; the extension is not expected to be completed until 2033 if it goes ahead.
Get alerts on HS2 when a new story is published