Posted 22nd October 2015 | 10 Comments

Rising cost of GWML electrification 'staggering' and 'unacceptable'

THE unhappy saga of Network Rail's faltering electrification programme has taken a new twist.

It has emerged that the cost of electrifying the Great Western Main Line between Hayes near London and Swansea, Bristol, Oxford and Newbury could now be approaching £3 billion, having almost tripled since the first estimates put the cost of upgrading the route as far as Cardiff at £874 million.

The project timescales have also disintegrated, and the Department for Transport has openly admitted that the earlier deadline of 2018 can no longer be counted on.

The latest revelations came as the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee took evidence from Network Rail chief executive Mark Carne, DfT permanent secretary Philip Rutnam and the chief executive of the Office of Rail and Road, Richard Price, whose department signed off the original budget as part of its regulatory duties.

Mr Price resisted repeated calls for his resignation during the tempestuous hearing, after both he and Mark Carne had been accused by the Committee's chair Meg Hiller of 'falling asleep on the job'.

Mr Price responded to the question "Why don't you resign?" with the answer: "It would be the wrong thing at this stage... to let Network Rail off the hook."

Ms Hillier came back with: "We're not quite sure why you resigning would let the company off the hook."

Mark Carne agreed that the new delays and costs were 'extremely disappointing'. He said that there had been 'inadequate planning and scope definition' in the early stages of the project. He continued: "From the very early stages of the design of a project, as you go forward there's a significant degree of uncertainty. I fully accept that this is extremely disappointing to everybody involved."

The latest estimate for the work is £2.8 billion, but no one was willing to be committed to a completion date. Philip Rutnam of the DfT said: "You're probably aware of the schedule that there was - which was 2016 to Bristol Parkway, Newbury, Oxford, 2017 to Cardiff, 2018 to Swansea. It is clearly highly likely that there will be delays against that schedule and I'm afraid I'm not in a position at the moment to give you a new schedule."

After the hearing, Ms Hillier said the rises were 'shocking'. She continued: "It shows there's a problem both with project planning at Network Rail and also with how the regulator agrees the costs. It's just a fiction, what came up last year."

Network Rail issued a statement which described the project as "an extremely complex task that is being delivered whilst continuing to run an operational railway".

The Committee is due to issue its report by the end of this year.

Reader Comments:

Views expressed in submitted comments are that of the author, and not necessarily shared by Railnews.

  • J Hutton, Oxford

    Travelling between Oxford and Paddington, I have the impression that progress has been 'steady' between Didcot and Reading. There is work still to be done but I would have thought this section could be complete by Easter 2016. This may be optimism on my part and I suspect that Network Rail did not factor in the ability of the people of Oxfordshire to raise unexpected objections. If you doubt this, ask Chiltern Railways about the problems they had getting a TWA for the new Oxford to London rail link - including an insistence by some that wheeling a wheelbarrow over an active rail line was reasonable.

  • Oliver Sudden, Luton

    If the readers would view the video of the PAC committee hearing, there are explanations (some would say, excuses) for the delays. 1. Borders Rly was implemented in short order because ScotRail had spent many years planning and developing the project. All Network Rail had to do was install the project - and they did so, very well. 2. Network Rail CEO (ex-Oil and Gas industry) stated that he is trying to turn around a megolith of an organisation (takes time) to adopt better practice (as per oil and gas) to spend more time planning and developing projects (and resist policiticians attempts to short-circuit the process), prior to starting a build-stage (a la Borders Rly) 3. Gt Western Electrification roll out is suffering from problems caused 40 years ago, when BR sunk signalling cables deep into the ground by the track (to deter thieves) but drew (or left) no maps to show where they buried them! Network Rail have to sink thousands of railside pilons for the electrification - of course, they found that the first few pilons were driven through the sunken signalling cables! (Thanks BR). This has caused the major delays.
    Network Rail DOES need overhauling. It needs commercial leadership (a la Mark Carne). It needs urgency in its business dealings. It needs an approach that says: safety first (which it does), then cost-effectiveness (rather than always cutting edge or the very best that money can buy). It needs to trim the number of managers and it needs to shake up it's in-house support services (Finance, HR, IT, Legal)

  • John Gilbert, Cradley, Herefordshire

    The totally incompetent British it would seem, - except in Scotland it would also seem. Why the difference? (And the Liverpool-Manchester wiring was also behindhand.) I applaud Mr Jones-Bridger's letter which sums it all up. I feel myself that there are simply far too many Jobsworths out there. And this at a time when all the politicians are in favour of the electrification programme for once!!!!! Heads must roll. Ands soon, so that the tempo can be speeded up.

  • Jonathan Brain, Hertfordshire

    Would more imaginative use of IEP bimode capabilities save money? E.G.
    (a) Delay electrification of Box tunnel.
    (b) Delay electrification of Severn Tunnel.

    Looking further ahead should a combined Severn Tunnel / Bridge replacement along the lines of Íresund Bridge be on the wishlist? In that case tunnel electrification would only be short term...

    Could add in battery and third rail capabilities either with IEP or stock for dual-voltage local services...

  • Jonathan Brain, Hertfordshire

    Maybe its also the fault of failing to have had a commitment to a steady rolling program of electrification since the 1950s of a target x double-track route miles per year...

    Routes prioritised as needed / requirements change, steady stream of work and planning together with early identification of issues. Be better than some occasional big bang political gimmick.

    Government commits to spend loads of money in the future with the Chinese and promises future financial commitments which cannot legally be changed. Oh well we will end up broke like the Greeks...

    How about a 50 year commitment to that x mileage - argue about where the next year's allocation goes and the priorities each year but the x mileage will get electrified...

  • Chris Neville-Smith, Durham

    Okay, Network Rail probably does need a dressing down for claiming upgrade of a working piece of infrastructure would be quick, cheap and easy. But any chance we also give a dressing down to everyone who claimed the upgrading the ECML and WCML would be quick, cheap and easy (and therefore no need for HS2)? Fair's fair.

  • claydon william, Norwich, Norfolk

    The only surprising thing about this is that everyone seems surprised......

  • Chris Jones-Bridger, Buckley Flintshire

    Once again the industry is being held to ridicule. Even if it is now accepted that executives & civil servants called to account for themselves in front of a House of Commons committee are going to face a duffing up they should at least be prepared. The reports from this hearing suggest otherwise.

    Given that the current forecast spend on GW electrification is now nearly three times the initial estimate serious answers are required from NR to explain the overspend. In all engineering disciplines NR should have plenty of historical data from past projects to have enabled the organisation to prepare a robust budget prior to the project being approved. While a full scale main line electrification hasn't been completed since ECML plenty of other schemes such as Bathgate - Airdrie have been completed to understand the unit costs of electrification today. Similarly, while a new build, construction of HS1 should have provided scope for cross industry cost comparison.

    Again ORR has been shown to be lacking. While appriciating that it has repeatedly challenged NR & previously Railtrack for a lack of an up to date asset register it still approved the budget for GW electrification works. In ORR's world there may be a more efficient means of delivering the scheme but to have signed off a budget that NR is overshooting so spectacularly so soon after it was agreed reflects poorly on ORR's competence in it's financial regulatory role.

    I would not expect the DfT civil servant to be able to provide a completion timetable. However I would have expected him to have anticipated the question and with the NR Cheif Executive to have provided the committee with the answer.

    Network Rail has shown it can handle & deliver complex investment projects to time & budget. For the sake of the industry's reputation it is time to get a grip on GW electrification. The experiences of West Coast Route Modernisation are still raw & should have been learnt.

  • Manchester Mike, Manchester

    Mr Price is spending too much time planning new highways and not enough time watching rail upgrades...

  • Tony Pearce, Reading

    It has been obvious from my vantage point every day in the Goring Hills that progress has been very slow indeed. We are nowhere near putting the wires up in Reading. There are some 'tricky' locations where the supports are going to have to be fixed to shear cliff faces and to 'listed' buildings and structures. Maybe its due to the fact that line posession is very difficult on the section between Didcot and Reading. But whatever the cause I've been watching for 18 months now and nothing seems to be happening.