Cancelled electrification projects should be revived and future schemes considered, according to MP Lillian Greenwood, chair of the Transport Select Committee.
The committee has published a new report into rail infrastructure investment which calls on the Government to re-evaluate its electrification strategy and move to address a perceived imbalance in funding between the north and south of the country.
The report said the Government and Network Rail should recategorise the three cancelled electrification schemes – Midland Main Line, Great Western west of Cardiff and the Lakes Line – as pending and add them to the Rail Network Enhancements Pipeline (RNEP) – the new framework for government-funded enhancement schemes.
“Generally the idea of the Rail Network Enhancement Pipeline was welcomed but obviously there’s some work the department and Network Rail need to do to restore their damaged reputation.”
Speaking to RailStaff, Greenwood said all the evidence suggests that electrification is still the best solution for some routes and that, while the committee supports the development of emerging traction technology, the case for bi-modes and alternative fuel trains had – at times – been overstated, with issues such as noise, environmental impact, reliability and maintenance costs not fully acknowledged.
“Certainly there’s a need to look at how electrification can be done more cost effectively,” said Lillian Greenwood, who became chair of the Transport Select Committee in 2017. She added: “We feel that there should be a rolling programme of electrification.”
The Rail Infrastructure Investment report covers a wide variety topics, including some of the looming challenges for CP6.
“We thought that the Rail Network Enhancement Pipeline needed to be more transparent… There needed to be greater clarity about what projects were available,” said Greenwood.
The report reflects on the need to remove the peaks and troughs from railway control periods to allow the supply chain to better invest in skills and new technology. “Without confidence those things will be inhibited,” said Greenwood.
The document also questions whether there is a ‘Plan B’ should third-party investment not materialise.
Greenwood said: “They’re hoping that the private sector will fill the gap. I think they need to look at what funding is available and what funding can be made available.”
She added: “I think the jury is very much out on whether the market-led proposals will be successful.”
One of the main themes of the report was how the Department for Transport (DfT) can ensure it is even handed in rail spending across the regions. Greenwood pointed to the publication of a Rebalancing Toolkit in December last year. While the toolkit appears to acknowledge there’s an issue, the report suggests that it should be made mandatory and reviewed regularly if it is to make any substantial difference.
In the formal announcement for the report’s publication, Greenwood said: “The Secretary of State’s cancellation of three rail electrification schemes in the Midlands, south Wales and Lake District only to be followed four days later by the announcement in principle to fund Crossrail 2 in London unsurprisingly re-ignited the debate about disparities in rail infrastructure investment between London and other regions.
“The Treasury’s own data shows that spending per head in London in 2016/17 was more than 10 times that of the East Midlands. Regional economies will never be able to catch up with London while such inequalities exist. While we accept that annual snapshots of comparative regional investment can be problematic, and that investment in one area can lead to benefits in another, some regions have faced decades of under-investment in their parts of the rail network.
“They deserve to have a clear sense of what the Government is doing to help them attract transport investment and grow economically. The Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine will struggle to live up to their names without tangible change.”
While some positives came from the drafting of the report – some praise was directed at Network Rail’s devolution strategy – it comes at a time when the railway is facing severe criticism for its handling of the May timetable change and the handover of the east coast route to LNER.
“I think it’s welcome that there’s investment coming forward and it’s right that there’s a focus on renewals,” said Greenwood, who reflected on some of the industry’s recent issues. “I think whilst rail has never been more popular, there’s quite a lot of challenges still to be addressed.”