HS2 Project Attacked By Alistair Darling
Former chancellor Alistair Darling has withdrawn his support for the HS2 train line, calling it "foolish" and warning of spiralling costs.
Mr Darling said the cost of the project, which is already officially around £43bn after soaring by £10bn earlier this year, could "easily run out of control".
The senior Labour MP, also a former transport secretary, questioned the entire purpose of the line, which the coalition argues will boost economic growth and narrow the North-South divide.
Its economic benefits are "highly contentious", he claimed, as he expressed fears it will drain money from other vital transport projects.
Mr Darling's U-turn, after he backed the early stages of the project when he was Chancellor, will fuel coalition fears Labour could be about to pull its support.
Writing in The Times, he said: "To commit ourselves to spending so much on a project that rules out any other major schemes seems foolish. And the costs are not yet nailed down.
"The facts have changed. The case for HS2 was just about stateable in 2010. I don't believe it is today."
Construction on the first phase of HS2, the route from London to Birmingham, is due to start in 2017 with the first trains aiming to run by around 2026.
The second phase will see two spurs added - one through Manchester and the other through Leeds.
A report by the Institute for Economic Affairs this week put its eventual cost at £80bn, almost double the official estimate and the Treasury is reported to be working on a figure of £73bn.
Mr Darling pointed out that capital projects across the Department of Transport (DfT) usually cost around £9bn a year.
He insisted: "It is time to revisit the case for HS2. It runs the risk of substantially draining the railway of money vital for investment over the next 30 years.
"My experience in government also makes me suspicious of big projects that can easily run out of control. Politicians are always excited by 'visionary' schemes.
"One thing I have learnt is that transport, rather like banking, is at its best when it is boring. That is when it tends to work. Political visions can easily become nightmares."
He agreed there is a need for more capacity on trains from London to the North but also warned of existing "severe" problems on commuter lines, particularly in the South East.
It was wrong to assume passengers travelling by train are not productive, saying often more work was done on the move than in the office, he added.
And he condemned the move to link the network to Euston station in London, instead of St Pancras which connects with the Eurostar or Paddington where there is a link to Heathrow.
"The next Government and the one after that will be very short of money to spend on the infrastructure that we desperately need," he said.
"To commit ourselves to spending so much on a project that rules out any other major schemes seems foolish. And the costs are not yet nailed down."
Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin later denied cross-party support for the project was weakening.
"The Labour Party are very much in support of HS2 and certainly when I met the core city leaders where HS2 will serve, all of them Labour Party members, they are very much in support," he insisted.
"This scheme is very important to the infrastructure of this country and all big infrastructure projects are all controversial. No doubt Alistair Darling knew that when he signed it off as chancellor of the Exchequer.
"The Chancellor and the Prime Minister have been totally in support of this project and there is no problem with support that I'm receiving from other colleagues in Government."
Campaigners claim constructing the line will affect more than half a million people across England and ultimately blight some of the country's most tranquil areas.