Rail electrification schemes scrapped due to cost according to NAO report

The transport secretary has been accused of lying over the reason for cancelling three planned rail electrification schemes, with financial costs said to be at the heart of the decision and not because the schemes wouldn’t deliver passenger benefits.

In a report released by The National Audit Office (NAO), the controversial decision to cancel the schemes has been judged as a purely financial one by the government watchdog. Claims that the introduction of new bi-mode trains would make electrification unnecessary was untested and uncosted, according to the NAO.

In his original cancellation announcement, the secretary of state for transport Chris Grayling explained that the projects were cancelled on the basis that it was were no longer necessary to electrify every line to deliver passenger benefits.

He said that passenger journeys on the Great Western Main Line in South Wales, the Midland Main Line and on the Lakes Line between Windermere and Oxenholme could be improved sooner than expected by using “state of the art trains”.

The Department for Transport (DfT) estimated that cancelling these three projects would save a maximum of £105m in 2014-19 rail investment period but would avert £1.385m of spending in the following 2019-24 period.

Speaking last year on the cancellation of schemes, Grayling said: “New bi-mode train technology offers seamless transfer from diesel power to electric that is undetectable to passengers. This means that we no longer need to electrify every line to achieve the same significant improvements to journeys, and we will only electrify lines where it delivers a genuine benefit to passengers.”

But in its report, the NAO said: “While the availability of alternative means of delivering passenger benefits was important, the major reason for cancellation was affordability. The department decided to cancel projects because Network Rail could no longer deliver its 2014-19 investment programme within the available funding. Network Rail found that the cost to complete planned works exceeded the available funding by £2.5bn.”

"It is clear from the conclusions of the NAO investigation that Chris Grayling, lied. The truth is that the government didn't want to find the money and made up a story."
ASLEF general secretary Mick Whelan

The report’s authors added it was too early to determine whether DfT will still be able to deliver the benefits of electrification without these electrification projects in place.

Responding to the NAO findings, Mick Whelan, general secretary of ASLEF, said: ‘It is clear from the conclusions of the National Audit Office investigation that Chris Grayling, the secretary of state for transport, lied. The truth is that the government didn’t want to find the money and made up a story about “sudden improvements” using “state of the art bi-mode trains”. It’s a fantasy, an exercise in smoke and mirrors, to disguise the truth, and Mr Grayling has been rumbled by the NAO.”

Transport committee chair Lilian Greenwood said: “This report from the National Audit Office is welcome, but it is deeply frustrating.  It is frustrating because it shows the secretary of state took the decision on the Midland Mainline in March 2017. He failed to mention it to the wider world, not just until the general election was over, but until the last day before recess in July.”

The Railway Industry Association (RIA) has responded to the report by saying it understood the reasons why but believes electrification schemes still need to be at the forefront of rail improvement decisions moving forward.

Darren Caplan, chief executive of the RIA, said: "The Railway Industry Association believes that electrification remains the best option for intensely used railways, due to its environmental benefits, improvement to journey times, and reduction in track wear. It is therefore vital that the government continues to keep electrification on the table when considering future rail improvements. We hope that our report, due to be published later this year, will help open the door for future electrification schemes by showing how they could be delivered more cost efficiently and effectively.”

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