The boss of Britain’s new high-speed rail line has admitted the South West will not benefit directly from the £50 billion project as it emerged the region stands not even to get the hand-me-down trains.
Amid growing anxiety on the peninsula over losing out over the proposed High Speed2 (HS2) line connecting London to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds, HS2 Ltd’s chairman, Sir David Higgins, told MPs: “It won’t directly benefit the far South West at all because this scheme can’t do everything.”
The admission to the Commons Transport Select Committee came as Westcountry MP Adrian Sanders, who serves on the cross-party committee, told him it would be “nonsense” at present to suggest Devon and Cornwall could get displaced trains freed up by the new 250mph versions flying north.
All bar a handful of the East and West Coast mainline trains run on electric wires – useless on the Great Western line into Devon and Cornwall where only diesels can travel on non-electrified tracks.
Mr Sanders, MP for Torbay, is among a growing band of MPs from the South West demanding an upgrade to the region’s rail network in return for their vote in the Commons supporting HS2.
The parlous state of the service has been writ large by recent storms that destroyed the Great Western line at Dawlish, and flooded repeatedly east of Exeter.
During the probe, Mr Sanders said a Government-commissioned report by accountants KPMG showing Devon and Cornwall’s economy could be hit by £140 million by HS2 underlined the region’s case.
He said: “You can’t expect every area to benefit. But it certainly shouldn’t be the case that any part of the country actually loses.”
Sir David replied: “I found that staggering. I couldn’t understands why building a railway north of London – so far way from Devon and Cornwall – was actually going to deteriorate on the economy of Devon. So I don’t actually understand how they worked that out.”
Mr Sanders went on to suggest even indirect benefits would be marginal.
The Liberal Democrat said: “Even if you tried to sell it to the people of the far South West that they would benefit from rolling stock that might be freed up from the East and West Coast mainlines, that’s complete nonsense anyway because we don’t have an electrified railway to use the electrified trains that would be handed down to us.
“How are you going to sell this to areas of the country – MPs like myself – to vote for this Bill when actually you’ll be voting to disadvantage our constituents and our local economies.”
The Great Western line is already in line to be electrified as far as Bristol, but most trains to west Somerset, Devon and Cornwall run on the “second” line which has only been upgraded to Newbury in Berkshire.
Sir David said the “entire debate is about fairness”,
arguing the justification for investment from the north stemmed from 50% of rail expenditure being pumped into London, and pointed to the second-hand trains “the North has to put up with”.
But Mr Sanders said the South West was “actually below the North”, adding: “The South West has just taken the hand-me-downs from Northern Rail.
“According to your report, the expenditure per head is far less in the South West than anywhere else. And that ‘South West’ includes the northern bit that will be having the investment in electrification to Bristol. The far South West will fall further behind.”
Sir David said to make sure other regions do not lose out
he wants ministers to ensure “other parts of the network” still get the rail spending they are promised when HS2 starts building work in 2020.