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Last updated: October 29, 2013 11:05 pm

Cities warn Miliband over HS2 ‘conflict’

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How the HS2 train might look. Illustration HS2 Ltd

Ed Miliband has been told by Labour leaders in big cities in the north and Midlands that he risks “protracted conflict” in his own party unless he throws his weight behind the £50bn High Speed 2 rail line.

The warning came on the day the government published a revised business case for the route between London and the north, scaling back projected benefits but insisting it offered good value for money.

David Cameron, the prime minister, believes the new business case and growing pressure from northern Labour MPs and council chiefs on Mr Miliband to back the project could be a turning point in the debate about the line. Sir Albert Bore, leader of Birmingham city council, urged the Labour leadership to stop sending out a “negative” message on HS2 in a letter written on behalf of the “core cities group”, which includes Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield.

Writing to Mary Creagh, the shadow transport secretary, Sir Albert warned if Labour put out such a negative message on HS2 there was a risk of “protracted public conflict between the party leadership and the Labour led core cities” in the run-up to the 2015 election.

On Tuesday night, Mr Miliband tried to calm his party’s nerves. His spokesman said: “Mr Miliband supports HS2 but he also supports value for money.”

The labour leader hopes the project’s costs can be brought down.

The spokesman also insisted that Mr Miliband – not shadow chancellor Ed Balls – was taking the lead on the party’s approach to the line.

“He is the leader of the Labour party and will take a final decision in consultation with the shadow cabinet,” the spokesman said.

Mr Balls, shadow chancellor, said on Tuesday the party had supported HS2 “in the past” but he would not issue a blank cheque and that the project must offer value for money.

During a speech in Manchester on Tuesday, the transport secretary said the line would help bridge the north-south divide and was the only way to ensure there would be enough capacity to meet demand.

Patrick McLoughlin painted a bleak outlook for the rail network without HS2, with trains across the country becoming increasingly overcrowded by the middle of the next decade.

As the core economic case for the new line is questioned, the government is looking to shift the focus to the capacity improvements the line will offer – a tripling of the number of seats from London’s Euston station by 2033 when the whole line is due to open.

An updated cost benefit analysis showed the line would return £1.80 for every £1 invested, rising to £2.30 when the impact of better connectivity on productivity is included. This is less than last year’s forecasts of £1.90 and £2.50 respectively, in part because the cost, including rolling stock, has jumped from £33bn to more than £50bn. The case weakened after the government updated its passenger forecasts and revised its assumption that people do not work on trains.

The report looked at alternatives and concluded the one that offered the biggest boost to capacity – upgrading the existing three main north-south rail routes – would cost more than £20bn and would lead to 14 years of engineering works and widespread disruption.

But opponents rejected the new business case as “voodoo economics” and said it was “a last-ditch attempt to make the case”.

Hilary Wharf, a transport economist and director of protest group HS2 Action Alliance, who lives close to the planned route, accused the government of manipulating the data about working on trains by not fully correcting their assumptions. “It would have devastated the business benefits because people already use the time usefully,” she said.

She also questioned that the updated case increased the impact of overcrowding on business travellers, pointing out that they often reserve seats, and said the government was “double-counting” some of the time savings that will be delivered by planned upgrades.

The publication of the report comes ahead of a key parliamentary vote on Thursday to secure further interim funding for HS2. MPs from both sides will vote in favour, although dozens of Conservative MPs are expected to rebel.

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