Electrification: an investigation

Source: RTM June/July 2018

The Transport Select Committee has been hard at work to get to the root of the DfT’s reasoning behind the decision to cancel electrification plans. Lilian Greenwood, chair of the committee, investigates.

Much of our rail network is under immense strain. Passenger numbers have more than doubled over the past two decades and there is a push to increase freight traffic on the railway as part of the government’s carbon reduction commitments. One of the ways successive governments have sought to address capacity issues alongside sustainability obligations has been through rail electrification.

The DfT identified electrification as a strategic priority in 2012. The case for substantial electrification was compelling: moving from diesel to electric traction, particular ly on heavily-used parts of the network, would reduce journey times and facilitate lighter, more efficient trains, reducing longterm costs and improving environmental sustainability.

The then secretary of state specified an unprecedented programme to electrify around 850 route miles of railway. Projects included specific commitments to extend planned electrification of the Great Western Main Line, from Cardiff to Swansea; the Midland Main Line north of Kettering; and the Lakes Line in the North West.

As has been well documented, the electrification programme hit problems very early on in CP5 and reached crisis point by mid2015. The sheer scale of projects, poor planning and scoping, and poor coordination between the DfT, Network Rail and the ORR led to severe time and cost overruns. The programme was re-planned, with a number of schemes postponed into CP6.

In July last year, just as Parliament was wrapping up for the summer, the secretary of state cancelled the three above-mentioned projects on the basis that it was no longer necessary to electrify every line to deliver passenger benefits. He claimed that journeys for passengers could improve sooner than expected by using state-of-the-art bi-mode trains on the Great Western and Midland mainlines and alternative-fuel trains between Oxenholme and Windermere.

Three things stood out for me: the timing of the announcement by written statement on the day the House rose for summer recess, the nature of it (focusing entirely on the claimed passenger benefits), and its coherence with the government’s wider plans to reduce carbon emissions, tackle poor air quality and increase efficiency on the railways.

It prompted my committee to investigate, beginning with a session in October with the transport secretary. His answers were wholly unsatisfactory and I wrote to him for clarity. His correspondence still failed to properly answer our questions about the decision and the reasons behind it. We recalled him to give evidence again in January when it became clearer that cost overruns in CP5 were central to his thinking.

A report by the National Audit Office, published at the end of March, shows that the secretary of state did not give us the full story in either the hearings or subsequent correspondence. We were right to be worried about the decision-making process, and the openness and transparency in which the case for cancelling the schemes was presented.

The schemes were cancelled because they were unaffordable within the re-planned CP5 enhancement portfolio. I was, and remain, astonished that the decisions were made without the department fully costing the environmental and long-term financial implications. A proper cost-benefit analysis is conspicuous in its absence, and it is hard to reconcile with the department’s announcement, in February 2018, that it intends to eliminate diesel from the railway by 2040.

Time and time again, decisions seem to be made without knowing the full implications or properly examining the alternatives. Ultimately, it is the passengers and communities who bear the brunt; their interests must be protected.

My committee is not going to let this lie. Our rail infrastructure investment inquiry was, in part, prompted by this debacle. We are now in the process of pulling all our evidence together with a view to publishing before the summer recess.


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