Tinkering by successive British transport ministers has wasted almost a fifth of the £1bn spent so far on the country’s biggest rail upgrade and delayed it by more than a decade, according to the parliamentary spending watchdog.
The programme of work on the 76-mile Transpennine line is meant to improve reliability and reduce overcrowding on an important part of the network that connects Manchester and Leeds, which became a key element in prime minister Boris Johnson’s flagship levelling-up agenda.
Last year’s Integrated Rail Plan finally confirmed the agreed scope of the project, costed at between £9bn and £11.5bn. The core part of the programme is scheduled for completion between 2030 and 2033, over a decade late.
In 2011, the Tory-led coalition government promised to help boost the economy of the North of England with a significant upgrade to one of the UK’s most unreliable and outdated rail routes.
But the National Audit Office found that since 2017, the Department for Transport had “repeatedly” altered its plans “to meet differing ministerial priorities and budget constraints”, despite the “fundamental need” for the original plan to remain unchanged.
Over the next four years, the department “failed to settle on a scope, switching between preferences for options which deliver to varying extents: electrification, digital signalling, additional track, station improvements, and changes to support the transport of different types of freight”, the watchdog found.
As a result of these delays Network Rail, the infrastructure operator, wasted an estimated £190mn of a total budget of £1bn “on work no longer needed”. The NAO concluded the department had “taken too long to decide how to upgrade the route.”
Work has yet to begin on the upgrade and in 2019, the year it was meant to be completed, just 38 per cent of trains on the line ran on time.
The NAO, however, found that the IRP had given the project greater certainty, but warned it was “not clear” how the government intended to deal with inflation or labour shortages. Ministers had also yet to confirm funding for the “critical” modern rolling stock needed to realise the upgrade’s benefits, the watchdog said.
It recommended minister address those issues by December at the next review of the business case for the project, as well as explain how the project will be integrated with Northern Powerhouse Rail, the wider plan for high-speed links in northern England, which was controversially scaled back in the IRP.
Shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh said people in the north were “sick and tired” of “empty words”, adding: “This scathing report reveals the Conservatives’ calamitous mishandling of this vital line has wasted hundreds of millions of pounds, and is set to be at least a decade late.”
Neil Holm, director of the Transpennine route upgrade for Network Rail welcomed the NAO findings and accepted them in full, saying they recognised the need to invest in the north’s railways and the major benefits the multibillion-pound programme would bring.
“While the programme has increased in scale and complexity to deliver more benefits to passengers, we are building strong foundations to ensure we have the capability to effectively deliver this mega programme for the north of England,” he said.
The DfT said extra funding would enable more tracks to be built, digital signalling and for the route to be fully electrified.
“Our unprecedented investment of over £9bn in the Transpennine route upgrade will improve connectivity, create jobs, and foster economic growth across the North.”