HS2 Boss Says U.K. Rail Project Can’t Be ‘Political Football’

The new head of Britain’s high-speed rail project said it needed bipartisan political support to succeed after a senior Labour lawmaker signaled the party could withdraw its backing for the 50 billion-pound ($80 billion) route.

“We can’t have this as a political football,” David Higgins, who was appointed chairman of HS2 Ltd. yesterday, told BBC Radio 4’s “Today” show. “It’s essential for economic growth in this country to have a proper modern railway.”

The proposed link from London to Birmingham and beyond, known as HS2, is designed to cut journey times and increase capacity on existing lines for freight. Ed Balls, treasury spokesman for the Labour opposition, questioned this week whether it was “the best way to spend 50 billion pounds.”

Balls and Higgins are due to meet in the next few weeks, and the HS2 chairman said he’d use the opportunity to make the case for the project.

“What’s the alternative?” he asked. “If we don’t do this, it’s patching up for the next 50 years an aging, Victorian railway system that’s operating massively over capacity.”

The high-speed line is unpopular among people who live on the route, which passes through Conservative-supporting rural districts. To try to allay concern, more than half the 140 miles (225 kilometers) of the first leg, from London to Birmingham, will be in cuttings or tunnels.

The government intends to introduce legislation supporting HS2 by the end of 2013, with a plan for it to be passed by Parliament by 2015. Construction would then begin in 2017, with the line to Birmingham opening in 2026. After Birmingham the line will split, with tracks going to Manchester and Leeds. These sections wouldn’t open until 2033.

Higgins told the BBC he thought the project could be completed faster than that, and for less money.

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