IF THE High Speed 2 rail link between London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds must be built it should at least be built properly, a prominent Tory opponent of the flagship project has claimed.
Former Wales secretary Cheryl Gillan welcomed Government moves to accept a version of an amendment both she and the Labour front bench proposed requiring the new line to be properly linked to other transport infrastructure.
And the Chesham and Amersham MP also launched a bid to include Scotland in the list of stops featured in the High Speed Rail (Preparation) Bill.
Speaking at the report stage of the Bill in the Commons, Mrs Gillan said: “If it is not fully connected and integrated into our transport system, I think it will be the white elephant so many of us believe it will be.
“Connectivity is at the heart of some of the failures of this particular project. For example, it doesn’t go to Heathrow, it doesn’t connect properly with the Channel Tunnel rail link - indeed it doesn’t even go into the centres of the cities that it is supposed to serve.
“I think we need to make sure that if this ever does get built, that connectivity is as good as it could be.”
Mrs Gillan voted against the Bill at second reading and has said she plans to do the same when the third reading vote takes place later on Thursday.
The Bill is only narrowly about authorising funding for the Bill. A so-called Hybrid Bill, paving the way for construction of the line, is expected to be published in the coming weeks and voted on in the spring.
When the Bill was last voted on by MPs, 21 Conservative MPs rebelled against the project. A rebellion is anticipated on Thursday but many MPs are expected to be away from the Commons when the division takes place.
As the debate got under way, Labour appeared to move back towards the project after a period of distancing itself from the scheme. Cool comments from Labour provoked Prime Minister David Cameron to suggest the whole scheme could be scrapped if the Opposition failed to fall in line.
In a statement outside the Commons, shadow transport secretary Mary Creagh said: “Labour supports HS2 because we must address the capacity problems that mean thousands of commuters face cramped, miserable journeys into Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and London.
“However, Government mismanagement has pushed up costs. Our message to David Cameron is clear. Get a grip on this project, get control of the budget and get it back on track.”
The £42.6 billion project is intended to link London to Birmingham by 2026, with two branches then heading to Manchester and Leeds, via Sheffield, being built by 2033.
Louise Ellman, the Labour chair of the Commons Transport Select Committee, said there was a case for “increased capacity” in favour of HS2.
“This amendment is to do with networks, and it’s to do with linking high-speed rail with the rest of the transport network and it mentions specifically the need to link with roads and airports.
“It is very important that HS2 is not seen as a separate development, separate from the rest of the rail network or indeed separate from the rest of the transport network, so I welcome this specific amendment.”
However, she said it was “unfortunate” that no final decision had been made in relation to extending air capacity at Heathrow, adding that the matter needed “urgent attention”.
The transport minister said he was “delighted” to add his name to the amendment tabled by Labour.
“And in doing so I hope this demonstrates the cross-party support and co-operation we will need to deliver this project which is so vital to the future of our country,” he said.
Shadow transport minister Lilian Greenwood said the party “welcomed” the move to have better integration across the transport network, including walking, cycling and light railway.
“I’m really pleased that these concerns have been addressed by this sensibly worded addition to the Bill,” she said.
“Now light rail will play an important role in linking stations in Birmingham, the East Midlands and Sheffield to the high-speed network. And the importance of making conventional rail accessible to pedestrians and cyclists is now recognised across the country.”
She added: “So it’s right to enshrine that for High Speed 2. And it’s a real achievement actually that both cycling and walking will now be acknowledged on the face of the Bill on the same basis as other modes of travel.”
Ms Greenwood said she also wanted to see the line integrated into the wider transport network.
She said: “We want to see the new high speed line built without further delay. The whole country can benefit from the improved capacity and connectivity it will bring. I am happy to see it fully integrated into the wider transport network.”
Former transport minister Simon Burns dismissed claims about the damage HS2 could cause as untrue. He said that critics of HS1 - which links London to the Channel Tunnel - had been proved wrong. The former minister also told MPs that critics of HS1 had claimed the line would have turned Kent from the Garden of England into the Garbage Can of England.
Mr Burns said Maidstone had successfully lobbied against not having a high speed rail station at the time but was now “begging” for one.
The MP for Chelmsford said: “High Speed 1 went ahead and what we now see is that the Kent economy has been regenerated and improved. That you have not seen house prices going through the floor.
“In fact, house prices along the line of the route have kept pace with other house prices and in some cases have increased beyond other ones because of proximity to good communications.
“It has increased capacity, particularly for commuters, who are prepared to use High Speed 1, from Canterbury in particular. What is the supreme irony is that there was one town in Kent that successfully lobbied not to have a station in its place and that was Maidstone and they stopped it.
“It was put at Ebbsfleet and now they are begging for a station at Maidstone because they are missing out on the regeneration and improvements to the economy that Ashford and Ebbsfleet are having.”