Rail leaders call for end to “boom and bust” spending after committee grills minister

Transport minister Jo Johnson.

There are fresh calls for ministers to radically overhaul the rail funding system after the transport committee concluded its evidence sessions on rail infrastructure investment with the visit of transport minister Jo Johnson on 30 April 2018.

The minister was on hand to answer questions from MPs on a range issues including disparities between regions in funding, failed electrification schemes and the impact of bi-mode trains on emissions reductions. 

One of the committee MPs, Grahame Morris, asked how the government demonstrated its commitment to addressing regional disparity when the figures showed an imbalance between London and the “peripheral regions”.

Johnson said that the Department for Transport (DfT) was committed to investing in all regions which required investment, but could not invest in schemes which lacked a strong business case. He argued that any decision to invest in a region’s transport was made on the basis of the strength of the case proposed and was judged on its merits.

Johnson went on to introduce a “rebalancing toolkit” which could be used in the future as “a checklist of things that promoters of schemes can ensure they’ve thought about when developing a business case, so they don’t miss an opportunity to bring to light elements that are going to be attractive to funders.”

Responding to Johnson, Darren Caplan, chief executive of the Railway Industry Association (RIA), said: “It has become clear through the inquiry that the biggest issue facing the rail industry is the funding system and the need to eradicate ‘boom and bust’ in railway investment. The RIA and our members have made it clear that failure to stop the ramping up and then drop-off of investment makes the cost of renewing the railways up to 30% more expensive at the same time as fostering a culture where teams working on the system disband and SMEs go out of business, due to the stop-start nature of the work."

The chair of the transport committee Lilian Greenwood also scrutinised the minister further on scrapped electrification schemes. Using the National Audit Office (NAO) report into electrification, she reaffirmed the reason that schemes had been cancelled was because the DfT had run out of money.

Responding, Johnson said: “The schemes were cancelled because since the time they were first announced, new technologies were developed that enabled the bulk of passenger benefits to be realised by other means, principally by bi-mode trains.”

In response to Johnson’s comments on electrification, David Clarke, technical director of RIA, said: “Whilst advances in technology can help the industry move towards a zero-carbon railway, it remains RIA’s position that electrification is still the optimal technical solution for the intensively used parts of the rail network. The problem has been that some recent programmes have been costing far more than they should, and this led RIA to launch its cross-industry Electrification Cost Challenge, which shows that electrification can be delivered at an affordable cost. RIA maintains that further electrification is an important part of any decarbonisation strategy for the railways, and the government must keep an open mind on this issue if it wants to deliver a sustainable and affordable transport system for the future."

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