LORDS are calling on the Government to consider scrapping plans to build a new HS2 line through Cheshire’s countryside and upgrade the existing mainline instead.

The House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee is urging the Government to cut costs for the high speed railway to make sure there is enough cash left to spend on the north – where peers say the investment is needed most urgently.

In part of a report published on Thursday, the committee calls on the Government to reconsider changing the route of Phase 2b – the line north of Crewe – in line with a 2016 report which suggested upgrading the existing West Coast Mainline instead.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, chairman of the Economic Affairs Committee, believes the costs of HS2 ‘do not appear to be under control’ and that the Government’s current plans will benefit London before the north.

He said: “Commuter services in the north of England are badly overcrowded and reliant on ageing trains. Rail connections between northern cities are poor.

Knutsford Guardian:

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean (image: PA)

“The north is being short-changed by the Government’s present plans, especially as construction on HS2 is starting in the south. Any overcrowding relief from HS2 will mainly benefit London commuters.

“If costs overrun on the first phase of the project, there could be insufficient funding for the rest of the new railway. The northern sections of HS2 must not be sacrificed to make up for overspending on the railway’s southern sections.”

The Government has a £56 billion budget for HS2 in its entirety, but a 2017 report from the Department for Transport suggested the cost could eventually rise to £111 billion.

The Lords report suggests that ‘substantial cost savings could be achieved by alterations to the route and design’ of Phase 2b, as revealed in the 2016 report by consultancy firm Atkins.

In that 2016 report, Atkins considered four alternatives to Phase 2b – all involving upgrading the existing routes between Crewe and Warrington, and Crewe and Manchester, rather than building HS2 through mid Cheshire.

The Government rejected the alternatives in November 2016 when it proposed its route for Phase 2b, while Atkins concluded that Phase 2b would ‘generate more rail demand and benefit more passengers’ than any of the alternatives put forward.

But Lords argue that changing the route to cut the speed of HS2 – which would ultimately bring costs down – would result in ‘minimal’ differences to journey time.

According to the report, journey times between London and Manchester would increase from 68 minutes on HS2 to 80 minutes under the best alternative – while the cost of the project would be cut from £39.9 billion spent on Phase 2b alone, to £26.6 billion spent on the best alternative.

Graham Dellow, chairman of Mid Cheshire Against HS2, has recently met with Conservative MPs Esther McVey and Fiona Bruce to share concerns over the project and the mid Cheshire route.

Knutsford Guardian:

Graham Dellow (right)

Following the Lords report – and with a race to replace Theresa May as Conservative party leader and Prime Minister underway – he is increasingly confident that the project could be axed.

Graham said: “We are hearing as each day passes that it is getting more and more difficult for HS2 Ltd – and we are getting happier and happier.

“We have always said that upgrading the West Coast Mainline is a much better way of achieving what HS2 is trying to achieve, and that HS2 is a duplicate of what we already have.

“If there was not a change of Conservative leadership coming I would still expect HS2 to be built, probably in its entirety. Theresa May seems to be the only person who still supports it.

“If she goes then I really do think there is a good chance the whole thing will be called off – but you just never know with Parliament.”

An environmental statement published by HS2 Ltd last year suggested that the Phase 2b line would require the A556, A54 and A553 to be rediverted, while houses in mid Cheshire would be demolished and hundreds of acres of agricultural and woodland lost.

While supporting HS2 as a means of improving the Cheshire economy, Cheshire East, West and Warrington councils have all called for ‘world class mitigation’ during consultation on the Phase 2b route.

A HS2 Ltd spokesman said: “Alternatives to the Phase 2b route, including reports complied by Atkins, were considered and assessed by the Department for Transport to ensure robustness of the Phase 2b business case.

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“None of the alternatives considered in the Atkins reports to overcome capacity and journey time limitations on the West Coast Mainline, East Coast Mainline and Midland Mainline deliver the same level of benefits, journey time savings or capacity relief as HS2’s Phase 2b route.”

Recent upgrades to the West Coast Mainline have caused disruption to passengers, and this would be expected if the Government adopts an alternative to Phase 2b in future.