NAO investigation into the government's decision to cancel three rail electrification projects

By agency reporter
March 31, 2018

In July 2017 the Secretary of State for Transport announced the cancellation of three electrification projects. This followed an earlier commitment by the Department for Transport in 2012 where it identified rail electrification as a strategic priority and announced £3 billion of electrification schemes for England and Wales in the 2014-2019 rail investment period.

In his cancellation announcement, the Secretary of State explained that the projects were cancelled on the basis that it was 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”. In the near term these would include bi-mode trains which can transfer from diesel to electric power without passengers being aware of the switch. The NAO investigation identifies that that it is too early to determine whether the Department will still be able to deliver the benefits of electrification without these electrification projects in place.

When the Secretary of State made his decision to cancel electrification north of Kettering in March 2017, the Department had advised that bi-mode trains with the required speed and acceleration to deliver the timetable of the route did not exist. When he made his announcement in July 2017, the Department was still uncertain whether existing bi-modes could be modified to achieve the required speed and acceleration.

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 £2.5 billion. In late 2016, the Department and Network Rail found that plans to raise and retain £1.8 billion to reduce the funding shortfall, through asset sales, were unachievable. They decided to cancel projects to help address the shortfall.

The Department estimated that cancelling these three projects would save a maximum of £105 million in 2014-19 rail investment period, but would avert £1,385 million of spending in the following 2019-24 period.

In March 2017, the Secretary of State and the Chancellor agreed a package of cancellations and deferrals, including cancellation of the Midland Main Line north of Kettering and the Oxenholme to Windermere electrification projects. After reviewing a planned update of the economic case for the Cardiff to Swansea scheme, the Prime Minister agreed to cancel the Cardiff to Swansea project in July 2017 shortly after which the Secretary of State announced his decision to cancel all three projects.

* Read the full report here  or the summary here

* National Audit Office https://www.nao.org.uk/

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