A MAYOR has claimed that building HS2 would have “no benefit” to the North East, amid worries over the future of the massive rail project.

Leaders across the North have pleaded with Rishi Sunak not to cut the high-speed train line further, with reports that its Birmingham to Manchester leg could be axed by ministers due to soaring costs.

But Jamie Driscoll, the independent North of Tyne mayor, has claimed that people in the North East are “scratching their heads” about the scheme – on which billions of pounds have already been spent.

Mr Driscoll, who quit the Labour Party this summer amid a bitter row over the party’s candidate selection for next year’s historic North East mayor election, said HS2 could be “hugely important for our country” – but called for the east to west Northern Powerhouse Rail upgrades to be prioritised ahead of it.

It marked a break from Labour mayors elsewhere in the North and London’s Sadiq Khan, who came together in Leeds on Wednesday to urge the Government not to pull the plug on HS2’s northern leg.

Mr Driscoll said: “As it stands, HS2 is of no benefit at all to the people of the North East. It is being scaled back, but the costs are spiralling out of control. Even if it gets to Manchester, that’s 140 miles from Newcastle and 200 miles from Berwick.

“There is a clear economic case for Northern Powerhouse Rail. It will cost about half as much as HS2 to complete and will deliver huge opportunities for our industries and communities.

“A lot of people in the North East are looking at HS2 and scratching their heads. Saying, ‘how will getting from Birmingham to London half an hour quicker improve our lives at all?’

“If the Government is serious about levelling up, it has to commit to levelling up our railways in the North. Our Victorian rail infrastructure is 166 years old, it’s creaking and holding us back.”

He added: “HS2 could be a hugely important project for our country. But it must be delivered alongside Northern Powerhouse Rail, including reopening the Leamside Line through County Durham to Newcastle. If we don’t do this, we will only widen the North/South divide.”

A motion approved by Northern leaders at a Transport for the North board meeting in Leeds called for the Government to “transform the North by building both HS2 and NPR in full” – after Mr Driscoll unsuccessfully tried to amend this to add the words “with Northern Powerhouse Rail as the priority”.

Backing that amendment, Keane Duncan, a councillor in North Yorkshire who will be the Tory candidate to be the county’s first metro mayor next year, said it was critical HS2 did not become a “red versus blue” issue.

Labour’s West Yorkshire mayor Tracy Brabin was among those who opposed Mayor Driscoll, saying she “vehemently disagreed” with the amendment.

Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham said the uncertainty over HS2 “does affect everybody in the room”, adding: “Because that capacity that comes through the new infrastructure north of Birmingham, through Crewe, and it’s critical for Crewe of course, not just for us, and then it’s Cheshire, Manchester Airport, everybody uses that, and then through the city. 

“That is at the heart of Northern Powerhouse Rail. And it’s only by getting that new infrastructure, new lines east, west and north and south, that we as a board then will be able to have confidence that the railways of the North of England are then acceptable for future generations.

“They are not until we get both. And that’s why we mustn’t be forced to make a choice at this at this stage.”

Kim McGuinness, who was chosen as Labour’s North East mayoral candidate after the party barred Mr Driscoll from the selection race, backed the calls for HS2 to be built.

She said: “Almost all the North is united behind the need to upgrade our Victorian railway infrastructure. Right now, it’s just too difficult and it takes too long to travel from east to west. For this, we need Northern Powerhouse rail delivered in full. HS2 enables this. 

“Anyone who tells you the North can’t have both should go to London and see how much the Government spends on their transport needs.”

Ahead of the Conservative party conference starting in Manchester this weekend, culture secretary Lucy Frazer insisted on Wednesday that Mr Sunak and Chancellor Jeremy Hunt would “listen to a wide variety of voices” on HS2.

Home Office minister Chris Philp told Sky News on Tuesday that the cost of HS2 has “roughly tripled” since it was first conceived, with suggestions that its price tag may have soared beyond £100m, but that “no decisions have been taken” on its future.

In October, the Government estimated the cost of the Manchester leg at up to £7bn.

In June, it reported that £22.bn had already been spent on the initial leg to Birmingham, and approximately £2.3 billion had been allocated to subsequent phases.