£38 billion rail plans put on hold

Government blames Network Rail

line of railway crossing in...

The government's much touted plans to improve the country's rail network are to be 'paused', following the discovery that the work is turning out more expensive and time-consuming than expected.

The £38 billion five-year plan was described as the biggest investment in the railways since Victorian times. But in its first year, more than a third of targets have been missed.

As a result, transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin has now told MPs that electrification work will be 'paused' on the Midland mainline, linking London to Sheffield, and the Transpennine route between Leeds and Manchester.

Blaming Network Rail for the problems, he said none of the company's directors would get a bonus this year. Current chairman Richard Parry-Jones is stepping down, to be replaced by the current transport commissioner in London, Sir Peter Hendy, who will come up with a new set of proposals by this autumn.

"Important aspects of Network Rail's investment programme are costing more and taking longer. Electrification is difficult. The UK supply chain for the complex signalling works needs to be stronger, construction rates have been slow," said McLoughlin.

"It has taken longer to obtain planning consents from some local authorities than expected. But that is no excuse - all of these problems could and should have been foreseen by Network Rail. So I want to inform the House of the action I am taking to reset this programme and get it back on track."

Network Rail has conceded that it underestimated the problems, with chief executive Mark Carne admitting: "We were overly optimistic about the capacity of our company and our supplier base to step up several gears in order to achieve the plan, especially given the complexities of a network that is at full capacity much of the time."

Now, says McLoughlin, electrification of the Great Western Line will be the priority, with electrification of the Midland and Transpennine routes put on hold until services have been improved and new trains introduced. This is despite the fact that the electrification of the Midland mainline has been described as 'critical to maintaining a reliable railway'.

"Passengers will be disappointed by this announcement, which follows years of above-inflation fares increases, crowded carriages and engineering works. Long-term plans and investment are important and welcome, and passengers have put up with much inconvenience in the expectation of a better, more reliable, and more comfortable rail service," says Anthony Smith, chief executive of the independent watchdog Transport Focus.

"What passengers will want now is a clear plan of action, setting out exactly when Network Rail will start to deliver some of the promised improvements. They want to know that somebody is getting to grips with this."

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