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Sheffield tram-train failings ‘echo those of Great Western electrification’

Sheffield Tram

The failings of the Sheffield tram-train project echo those of the modernising of the Great Western Main Line, a report by MPs has found.

Like the electrification of the route between London Paddington and Cardiff, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has found that when planning the Sheffield project, Network Rail “seriously” under-estimated the job and what it entailed and failed to factor in delivery risks.

The project, from Sheffield to Rotherham, will see vehicles use tram lines and Network Rail lines for the first time in the UK. It was a pilot project, approved by the Department for Transport (DfT) in 2012.

However, the cost of the scheme rose from £15M, a figure given even though the scheme design was not finished, to £75M – an increase of more than 400% – and is two and a half years behind schedule. The PAC says the benefits of the scheme were not properly quantified.

In terms of the project, the PAC says the value it offers taxpayers still is not properly evaluated, and neither Network Rail or the DfT has done enough work to see whether the technology can be used elsewhere and whether it is affordable.

The committee is now calling on Network Rail to prove it can better evaluate and manage projects and the DfT to show it can better scrutinise Network Rail’s plans.

PAC chair Meg Hillier MP said: “This project promised great benefits for passengers and, importantly, a potential model for similar schemes in cities such as Manchester, Cardiff and Glasgow.

“Instead the reality is another rail project with all the makings of a ‘how not to’ seminar for senior civil servants.

“This pilot was trialling technology new to the UK, yet neither Network Rail nor the Department for Transport properly considered the high level of risk and uncertainty.

“Unrealistic costings went unchallenged, resulting in an initial budget of £15 million spiralling to some £75 million. There have been long delays, and it is still not clear how, or even if, the experience of running this pilot will reduce the costs and improve delivery of any future tram-train schemes.

“Not for the first time, we heard evidence intended to reassure Parliament and the public that lessons learned on this project will ensure the failings identified will not arise again.

“We will be expecting government to back this up with a meaningful review of the way it manages such projects, from calculating cost estimates through to transparently evaluating results.

“Actions speak louder than words and on behalf of taxpayers we will, if necessary, recall witnesses responsible for current and future projects and hold them to account for their performance.”

A DfT spokesperson said in response: “This is a ground breaking pilot project that will transform services for passengers between Sheffield and Rotherham, and will be a blueprint for rolling out tram-train technology across the country.

“There will be always uncertainty when developing new technology and we have been clear about our disappointment at the delay and cost of this project. But Network Rail now has costs under control and this scheme – the first of its kind – has huge potential to wider transform services for passengers across the country.

“Important lessons have already been learned, but we are carefully considering the committee’s report and recommendations and will respond in due course.”

Network Rail route managing director Rob McIntosh added in response: “I welcome the findings of the Public Accounts Committee following the hearing in October. Tram Train is an ambitious pilot, a UK first, and as such this project has brought with it many complex challenges.

”We acknowledge and accept the points raised and recommendations made by the Committee and good progress is being made towards implementing these. Despite these challenges, the Tram Train project is now moving into the final phases of construction, with the infrastructure on course to be completed in summer 2018 meaning passengers will soon be able to reap the benefits of improved travel choices in South Yorkshire.

”The nature of this pilot project means we have gathered significant information and learning to help shape the way similar projects should be delivered in the future and have already shared many of our findings with stakeholders in other regions across the country.”

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