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The former Labour chancellor Alistair Darling has strongly attacked the HS2 high-speed rail project saying its economic benefits are ‘highly contentious’.

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Mr Darling, who is also a former transport secretary, said HS2 ‘ran the risk of substantially draining the railways of money over the next 30 years’.

Saying political visions ‘can easily become nightmare’, the chancellor under Gordon Brown added it seemed ‘foolish’ to commit to a project that ruled out any other major schemes.

His comments came in The Times and follow earlier reservations he has expressed about HS2.

The Government has said the cost of HS2, whose first phase will see high-speed trains running from London to Birmingham around 2026, is around £50billion.

But an Institute for Economic Affairs report earlier this week estimated the eventual cost at £80billion, and it has been reported the Treasury is working on a figure of £73billion.

Mr Darling said today: “It is time to revisit the case for HS2. It runs the risk of substantially draining the railway of money vital for investment over the next 30 years.

“My experience in government also makes me suspicious of big projects that can easily run out of control. Politicians are always excited by ‘visionary’ schemes.

“One thing I have learnt is that transport, rather like banking, is at its best when it is boring. That is when it tends to work.

“Political visions can easily become nightmares.”

Mr Darling said it was true there were capacity problems on the route from London to the Midlands and north west England, but added there were also severe capacity problems on commuter routes, particularly in the south east.

He said: “And why high-speed trains? Certainly it’s handy to cut the journey time between Birmingham and London by half an hour. But at what cost?

“To commit ourselves to spending so much on a project that rules out any other major schemes seems foolish. And the costs are not yet nailed down.

“The facts have changed. The case for HS2 was just about stateable in 2010. I don’t believe it is today.”

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