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MPs' damning verdict on rail electrification

Installation of electrification equipment in the Severn Tunnel 3to2

The electrification of the Great Western route was a “stark example of how not to run a major project” according to the chair of the influential Commons public accounts committee (PAC).

The PAC has just published its report on the scheme which says the electrification project was flawed from the start in terms of planning, design and cost estimates.

Now the report says the ability of the Department for Transport and Network Rail to manage the planned electrification schemes on Midland Main Line and TransPennine routes is a concern. However, Network Rail and the Department for Transport (DfT) say they have already learnt lessons from what went wrong and have incorporated these into the way they make decisions and plan.

The cross party committee’s report describes the £1.2bn estimated cost programme increase in the space of a year as “staggering and unacceptable”.  Network Rail has admitted it is unable say for sure that it will be on budget at £2.8bn by December 2018 and there are still “significant risks” to be managed.

The report comes at a crucial time for the rail industry as PR18 starts to shape what the next financial period, CP6, will look like. The government is already indicating that further electrification is out of favour and the solution to the problem of how to get faster journey times on trains that carry more people is through better signalling that increases train frequency; longer trains; and new hybrid trains that can switch between diesel and electricity depending on the section of line it is running on.

The PAC report says poor planning of infrastructure works was one of the main drivers of the cost and time overruns. The lack of planning consisted of incomplete design, poor cost-estimating, and the fact that construction started before the 1,800 separate consents needed from local authorities were in place.

“Network Rail could not explain why it had not sought to avoid these problems by obtaining an Order under the Transport and Works Act enabling the Secretary of State to have granted planning permission for the whole scheme,” said the report.

Scrutiny of the job was also criticised. The DfT left much of this to the Office of Rail and Road (ORR). “The Department accepts that this system was too complex ‘much weaker and less reliable than [it] thought’, though it believes that it has since put in place a ‘very clear structure of accountability,” said the report. The issue of accountability was also discussed in the Shaw Report last year and DfT and ORR are already changing the way accountability works, particularly in relation to route devolution by CP6.

The PAC report recommends that DfT and Network Rail now get independent opinions on whether their plans are deliverable and the PAC said it expects to see this on future major programmes, such as the Midland Main Line and TransPennine upgrades.

“This is a stark example of how not to run a major project, from flawed planning at the earliest stage to weak accountability and what remain serious questions about the reasons for embarking on the work in the first place,” said PAC chair Meg Hillier.

She added: ”The Department failed to adequately challenge Network Rail’s plans to carry out the infrastructure work and, even now, casts doubt on whether electrification work on this and other lines is even necessary. Government accepts it got this project badly wrong and must now demonstrate it has learned the lessons. Network Rail admits there are still very significant risks in the Great Western scheme and it is vital these are fully identified and carefully managed.”

“For its part, the Department should urgently review its plans for electrification – not just on the different sections of the Great Western route, but also on the Midland Main Line and TransPennine routes. Electrification was heralded with the promise of benefits to passengers but the Government has a duty to determine if, in fact, these benefits can be delivered in a more timely and cost-effective way.”

Meanwhile rail minister Paul Maynard also said that the Department for Transport had already learnt lessons and implemented change. He said: “The modernisation of the Great Western Railway is the most substantial programme of work undertaken on the railway since the Victorian era and will deliver better services for passengers, with new trains and  thousands more seats.

“We continually assess our investment decisions to ensure they deliver maximum value for the taxpayer.

“As the report acknowledges, since autumn 2015 we have overhauled the way the Department commissions and oversees work from Network Rail – including a clear structure of accountability, with new governance processes that include independent assurance on cost and deliverability.”

Network Rail chief executive Mark Carne said in response to the report: “I very much welcome the PAC’s conclusions. The modernisation of the Great Western line was always going to be a hugely complex job on the world’s oldest long distance railway. Yet in 2009 it was committed to, then started, long before the scale of the work was properly understood.

“Network Rail and DfT have learnt the lessons from the poor early planning of this project. Today we do not take forward major projects until they are properly scoped, properly planned and we have a robust estimate of what the cost will be.

“Despite the continued challenges and complexity of the Great Western programme we are making good progress and real passenger benefits have started. This year we, and our colleagues at GWR, have already introduced the first ever electrified services between Paddington and Hayes & Harlington.  Brand new trains will start to enter service in the autumn, giving passengers 24% more seats per train and more comfort.”






Readers' comments (2)

  • Philip Alexander

    Is there no limit to the breathtaking incompetence of Network Rail? These sorts of "cost overruns" are, and always have been part of the railway owner's culture whether it's called Railtrack or Network Rail. It is quite deliberate in order to get the financial go ahead on a contrived, false budget which they all know cannot be achieved and then the minister cannot cancel because he looks incompetent too (although most of them are). Network Rail in their former guise of Railtrack promised to learn the lessons of the WCML upgrade fiasco way back but clearly nothing has changed. To set off constructing a complex piece of linear railway infrastructure without a complete design and plan of implementation was and is just plain stupid. But NR is so arrogant ("Don't query what we're doing, you wouldn't understand , it's safety critical so we're the only people who can deal with this" - does that sound familiar to any consultants who have worked for them, or more likely tried to work for them?) that they plough on thinking that only they can deal with a complex railway project but all they succeed in doing is to confirm every time that they are utterly incompetent.
    And the same bunch of Dept of Transport morons who are in charge of approvals etc are also in charge of HS2. Heaven help us all when those financial chickens come home to roost.

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  • Yes there has been mismanagement, but don't be too quick to stick the boot in. It's easy to look in from the outside and sling mud without fully appreciating the situation. There is huge political pressure to agree to impossible programme targets and budgets. It takes a very strong individual to push back on thats sort of pressure from the outset in the current political climate. There a is general lack of understanding amongst politicians and the public on just what it takes to deliver major infrastructure projects, upgrading a Victorian railway while keeping services operational. All while NR are still recovering from the dysfunctional structure imposed post-privatisation. All the planning and consents issues that just seem to get more and more onerous. Also while dealing with massive skill shortages which continue to get worse...delivering large projects in the UK these days is like trying to run with one arm and one leg cut off.

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