Chris Grayling’s decision to cancel three major rail electrification projects last summer was reached without sufficient evidence that bi-mode trains could deliver the same passenger benefits, an investigation from the National Audit Office (NAO) has found.
The Secretary of State for Transport decided to axe plans to modernise the line from Cardiff to Swansea, the Midland mainline and tracks in the Lake District. Network Rail’s electrification works across the United Kingdom, most notably on the Great Western mainline from London to Swansea, which began in 2014, were described by the public body as a “vital upgrade that would signal cleaner, faster and more reliable services for passengers”.
Grayling said the projects had been scrapped on the grounds that it was no longer necessary to electrify every line, and that passenger journeys on the three lines could be improved sooner than expected by “state of the art trains”.
In the near term, he said, these would include bi-mode trains which can transfer from diesel to electric power without passengers being aware of the switch. But in March 2017, the Department for Transport (DfT) advised Grayling that bi-mode trains with the required speed and acceleration to deliver the timetable of the route did not yet exist. When he made his announcement in July, the DfT 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, the NAO identified in its report, was affordability. The DfT decided to cancel projects because Network Rail, it said, could no longer deliver its 2014-19 investment programme within the available funding framework.
Network Rail discovered that the cost to complete planned works exceeded the available funding by £2.5bn. In late 2016, the DfT and Network Rail found that plans to raise and retain £1.8bn to reduce the funding shortfall, through asset sales, were unachievable. According to the NAO, they decided to cancel projects to help address the shortfall.
The DfT estimated that cancelling these three projects would save a maximum of £105m in 2014-19 rail investment period; but that, the NAO noted, would avert nearly £1.4bn of spending in the following 2019-24 period.
The NAO also suggested that while bi-mode trains could allow greater flexibility since they are able to run on electrified and non-electrified lines, that there were some disadvantages to Grayling’s idea in the first place. These include increased track damage and higher energy costs compared to electric trains.