Aptly, Patrick McLoughlin initially wanted to call the government’s spending on rail the “Rail Investment Programme” – until a civil servant pointed out that its acronym would be RIP. Eight weeks ago, those spending plans were still at the forefront of the Tory election campaign. The Conservative manifesto promised electrification for the Midlands and the North. We were treated to long lectures about the how Ministers were building a ‘Northern Powerhouse,’ and even a ‘Midlands Engine.’
Yesterday the electric dream died. Two major projects have been cancelled – or ‘paused,’ as the government delicately puts it – and the status of other plans is unclear. Contingent investment in new electric trains has been put off. The economy is not going to be rebalanced after all. The Northern Powerhouse has had the power turned off. The Midlands Engine is rusting in a siding.
The most important question for the government is simple – who knew? Which of those Ministers who spent April touring marginal constituencies, reading out long lists of investment projects and hinting at more to come, knew that the axe was about to fall?
The case against the Transport Secretary and other Ministers in the Department for Transport is compelling. It has been a matter of public record for well over a year that the Great Western electrification project was in trouble – indeed, Labour first raised the issue in Parliament in May 2014. Network Rail’s Chief Executive, Mark Carne, said yesterday that: ‘We knew, already, very early on last year that certain aspects of the plan were going to be incredibly difficult to deliver.’
Ministers must bear ultimate responsibility. As the Transport Select Committee warned in January:
Key rail enhancement projects—such as electrification in the North and North West of England—have been announced by Ministers without Network Rail having a clear estimate of what the projects will cost, leading to uncertainty about whether the projects will be delivered on time, or at all.”
Claire Perry, the rail minister, conceded the point last week, when she admitted at an event for rail engineers that ‘we’ve given Network Rail the biggest challenge it has ever faced,’ and that Ministers had place a ‘massive demand on engineering capacity.’
Labour has documented how the combined cost of Midland Main Line and Great Western electrification doubled from £1.5 billion to £3 billion in just two years. As a consequence, in November of last year, Network Rail started to compile a list of ‘those items/projects that would be stopped or refused in order to live within the capital constraints.’
Minutes published today in response to a FOI request I made reveal that, on March 19th Network Rail’s Chief Executive said that the Department for Transport ‘had a line of sight to most of the information in the current iteration of the Business Plan,’ and went on to say the company would have to ‘close the funding gap but the Board needed to be aware that the funding gap could be significant.’
Crucially, Patrick McLoughlin was handed a report on September 1 on the state of Network Rail’s plans, which was jointly written by the Regulator, Network Rail, and the Department for Transport. He has subsequently refused to publish it. In the absence of a copy in the public domain, it is difficult to resist the conclusion that this report recommended that cuts be made in order to reduce the cost of Network Rail’s overall programme.
It is clear that ministers knew that Network Rail’s plans were in jeopardy and remained silent. As I warned on this blog back in March, the government knew that its rail investment plans were ‘falling apart’ and that this was ‘a story that the government is desperate to keep quiet.’
However, railways are hierarchical structures, and we need to ask just how far up the hierarchy awareness of these problems rose. Yesterday the Prime Minister’s official spokesperson refused to comment when they were asked when David Cameron was made aware of these cost overruns. As Michael Dugher said in his letter to Cameron this morning:
“It appears that despite you and your ministers knowing that these projects were in serious difficulty before the election, you decided to wait until after the election to reveal the extent of the problems before reneging on the commitments you had previously made.”
Passengers deserve better than ministers who are happy to be photographed next to new trains but then withhold the truth from the public, and who think that rail lines are the words they need to remember to get through their next interview. Unfortunately the Transpennine and Midland Main Line electrification schemes are not the only Network Rail projects that in trouble, and the government now needs to set out whether there are additional problems heading down the track.