WHEN DID MINISTERS KNOW?
Questions remain unanswered about the decision to “pause” the electrification of the rail line from Leeds to Manchester. Passengers facing the prospect of overcrowded and slow trains between these major cities well into the next decade deserve to know how they were deceived in the run up to the election. We all deserve to know because connectivity is meant to be at the heart of the Northern Powerhouse.
The people who should be answering the questions have gone to ground. I listened to an excellent report on our rail problems recently. It was BBC Radio Four’s File On Four produced in Salford. They were investigating the Leeds-Manchester fiasco along with the recent chaos at London Bridge and the fact that new trains can’t be used at Bristol Temple Meads because the carriages are too long not to scrape on the curved platform. About ten times the reporter, Allan Urry, had to say nobody had been prepared to face his questions.
In relation to the decision not to go ahead with the electrification of the Leeds to Manchester rail line, some interesting facts are emerging which appear to show that Ministers and rail chiefs knew fine well before the General Election that the project wasn’t going ahead.
There has been a long running war of words between Network Rail (NR) and the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) which approves all NR’s investment plans. Before he moved to head up HS2 in the spring of last year, NR’s Chief Executive David Higgins was scathing about ORR’s approach of requiring him to do far more for far less money. Last year Higgins claimed NR was being asked “to deliver too much, too quickly” and the prospect of achieving ORR’s targets was “unrealistic.” So I doubt if David Higgins was surprised when the Transport Secretary paused the electrification.
We now move forward to last September when NR’s inability to deliver became clearer. Transport for Greater Manchester have told a source of mine that the franchise invitation to tenders were delayed by two months once the Department for Transport and Rail North (a body of councils and MPs) became aware of NR’s difficulty. Bidders were instructed to assume that TransPennine electrification would not be completed during the franchise term of TransPennine Express and Northern Rail. This indicates that a year ago Network Rail were saying that the train companies should assume that rail electrification would not take place until around 2024 when bidding for their franchise renewals.
Now can I introduce you to the little known MP for Harrogate, Andrew Jones. He used to chair the Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin’s Electrification Task Force which has now had a spectacular power failure. Its purpose was to advise McLoughlin on how schemes could be accelerated. Andrew Jones biography on the Department of Transport website says he provided “advice on the next steps for electrification of railways in the North of England”.
So are we to assume that Mr Jones didn’t advise McLoughlin in March that electrification wasn’t going to happen when he was chairing a task force with the specific purpose of advising on electrification? Mr Jones has now been promoted to a junior ministerial position in the Department of Transport.
I’ve given Patrick McLoughlin a lot of stick in this blog so I leave you with a suggestion that has been made to me. The government may be looking at a vastly more ambitious tunnel option instead of electrifying the existing line. If so, why don’t they level with us?
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