Transport Secretary under attack over rail electrification

The Transport Secretary has been accused of "lying" over his controversial decision not to proceed with three major rail electrification projects following an investigation into the cancellation.

The National Audit Office (NAO) said Chris Grayling had explained that the projects in England and Wales would not go ahead because it was no longer necessary to electrify every line to deliver passenger benefits.

He said 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", including bi-mode trains which can transfer from diesel to electric power without passengers being aware of the switch.

However, a union leader has accused Mr Grayling of lying.

Transport Secretary Chris Grayling (Victoria Jones/PA)
Transport Secretary Chris Grayling (Victoria Jones/PA)

But the NAO said the main reason for the cancellation was financial.

Its report 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 £2.5 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 NAO said it was too early to determine whether the Transport Department will still be able to deliver the benefits of electrification without these electrification projects in place.

It also revealed that the Prime Minister agreed to cancel the Cardiff to Swansea project last July shortly before Mr Grayling's announcement.

Mick Whelan, general secretary of the train drivers' union Aslef, said: "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 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.

"The Prime Minister has her fingerprints on this as well."

A Department for Transport spokesman said: "We are investing in the biggest modernisation of our railways since the Victorian era, spending billions of pounds across the country to deliver faster, more frequent, and more comfortable services with more seats.

"As this report makes clear, we are focused on delivering better trains and services to passengers more quickly, at better value for money for the taxpayer, without the significant disruption to services that electrification can cause."

Shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald said: "This report lays bare the delusional and disastrous decision taken by the Transport Secretary last summer.

"Grayling's short-term, sticking plaster solution is a huge setback for the British rail network which passengers and taxpayers will have to live with for years."

Mick Cash, leader of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union, said: "Once again the hypocrisy and failures of Chris Grayling on rail electrification are laid bare."

Lilian Greenwood, who chairs the Transport Select Committee, said the report shows Mr Grayling took the decision on the Midland Mainline in March 2017, but "failed to mention it to the wider world", until after the general election and until the last day before the Parliamentary recess in July.

"It is frustrating because it shows the Secretary of State was less than candid with the Committee when we sought to investigate this during our evidence session last October. Even when the Committee recalled him in January, we did not get the full story.

"This report confirms we were right to be worried about the decision-making process and the openness and transparency with which the Department and the Secretary of State have presented their case.

"But it is especially frustrating for passengers. The Report confirms that the Department has not yet fully costed the environmental and future financial implications of its decision on Midland Main Line and Oxenholme to Windermere.

"I believe this should have been considered before the decision to cancel was made.

"The Secretary of State promised my committee that completing electrification would 'be more expensive' than buying bi-mode trains which deliver the same passenger benefits.

"He said this knowing the technology does not exist."

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