Campaigners against the Government’s £50bn HS2 high speed rail project claim Chester will actually lose its fast train service to London Euston.
Supporters such as Chester MP Stephen Mosley (Conservative) are adamant journey times will be ‘slashed’ by the second phase of HS2 with trains travelling between the capital and the north at speeds of up to 250mph.
But the HS2 Action Alliance says the first phase of HS2 only goes as far as Birmingham with no guarantees about the second phase to Manchester and Leeds. However, the business case includes £8.3bn cuts to existing local rail services with an impact on the current Chester-London route.
At present there is one fast train an hour to London Euston with two stops. After HS2, the alliance claims the same London-bound train will have seven stops, adding 25 minutes to the current two-hour journey time.
Alliance campaigns director Peter Chegwyn said: “HS2 does not benefit Chester. Steam trains offered a better service to Chester than HS2.”
Mr Mosley hit back: “These rumours have no grounding in fact. This campaign group should be ashamed of themselves for ignoring the evidence about HS2 in favour of shameless scaremongering.
“Let there be no mistake about it: HS2 will benefit Chester. A recent Freedom of Information request by BBC Newsnight revealed that HS2 would deliver up to £76.9m of benefits for Chester and Ellesmere Port each year. And by freeing capacity on the West Coast Mainline, it will enable more services to run from Chester to London. These are benefits that I want to see for our city.”
For HS2 to happen is likely to require a cross-party consensus but the opposition is starting to ask questions around ‘value for money’ as evidenced by Chester’s Labour parliamentary candidate Chris Matheson, who told the Chronicle : “The Labour Party supports HS2 but we are concerned that costs must be kept under control and there can't be any blank cheques.
“As a regular traveller I know how Chester has benefited in recent years from improved rail services because of improvements to the West Coast Main Line and we should now be fighting hard for our city to benefit from HS2.”
Nick Hodson, chairman of Chester Business Club, said it was hard to get to the bottom of the issue in an atmosphere of ‘spin’ from both sides.
He said: “At the moment, the war of words between the ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ groups in the HS2 debate, coupled with unfortunately somewhat opaque comments coming out of Whitehall, make it extremely difficult for the business community to come to an informed opinion.”
Mr Hodson warned: “Our members campaigned for and have warmly welcomed the recently much improved West Coast rail services from and to Chester and would be concerned if the implementation of HS2 resulted in a less effective service, especially if it led to an adverse impact on the commercial viability of local businesses.”
Council spokesman Ian Callister stressed that the authority’s submission on HS2 proposals had emphasised the importance of preservation and development of current rail systems.
He said: “Our submission placed strong emphasis on the need to ensure that safeguards and investment is also secured for the existing rail network infrastructure and services.”
Rail enthusiast and expert John Murray, of Handbridge, said: “HS2 is too London centric and discourages the economic development of regional centres outside the south east. There are alternatives – developing existing networks and using abandoned infrastructure.
“Many of the proposed stations, eg Birmingham and Sheffield, are outside the city centres so negating the advantage of the high speed by having to use local transport into the city centre.”
He added: “In other European countries, high speed networks have been developed at the expense of suburban networks. It has been suggested this factor was behind a fatal train crash on the outskirts of Paris in July 2013, caused by a track failure.”