U.K. High-Speed Rail Bill Vote Set to Win Labour Support

A proposed high-speed rail line linking London and northern England is poised to clear a key parliamentary test after the opposition Labour Party pledged to back the project.

Prime Minister David Cameron has struggled to win support from his own Conservative Party for the 50 billion-pound ($84 billion) railway known as HS2. At least one in 10 Tory lawmakers plan to oppose the legislation at its second reading in the House of Commons in London today, according to one rebel.

Trains reaching speeds as high as 225 miles (362 kilometers) an hour would run along the proposed 335-mile track connecting London to Birmingham in central England, as well as Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds. Labour’s commitment had been questioned after Ed Balls, who speaks for the party on economic affairs, said in September there would be no “blank check” for the project if Labour wins the 2015 general election.

“With the cost going up, we had to look again at it,” Labour’s transport spokeswoman, Mary Creagh, told Sky News television yesterday. “We’ve had that look and we’re backing the project.”

The British Chambers of Commerce said in a statement today that the line was essential to help with Britain’s “chronically overstretched” network.

‘Serious Doubts’

Meanwhile, the Institute of Economic Affairs accused the government of misleading the public by claiming HS2 will transform the economy of northern England. In a report published today, the policy-analysis group said the first high-speed line, which links London to the Channel Tunnel, had failed to improve employment in the county of Kent, where it has a stop.

HS2 has sparked opposition from environmental groups and lawmakers representing affected constituencies. The House of Commons Treasury Committee said in October that the economic case for the railway, which will run through affluent rural areas without providing stations there, hadn’t been proven.

Conservative lawmaker Michael Fabricant said yesterday that between 30 and 40 Conservatives will vote against the government, and that the rebellion would be greater if Labour opposed the project.

As many as 100 lawmakers had “really serious doubts” about the costs and implementation of the project, but many were unwilling to “use up our stocks” with the party whips when the government was almost certain to win the vote, Fabricant, a former Tory party vice-chairman, told Sky News television.

Further, Faster

Other opponents of HS2 include newly appointed Treasury minister Andrea Leadsom, who has raised concerns the railway would damage natural habitats and represent poor value for money.

Today’s debate will see lawmakers discuss the main principles of the bill before it receives detailed scrutiny by a parliamentary committee. The debate is due to start at about 3:30 p.m. London time, with the vote expected to take place late evening.

The first phase of the project, which will run to the West Midlands, is scheduled to be completed in 2026. A second phase would connect Leeds and Manchester, and eventually Scotland.

In a report published last month, HS2 Ltd. Chairman David Higgins recommended the project be built further and faster, serving northern England earlier than envisaged. The government is following his suggestion to scrap a planned link between HS2 and the High Speed 1 Channel Tunnel line.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.