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Great Western Main Line: Electrification

Volume 779: debated on Tuesday 14 March 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their estimate of the final cost and timetable for completing the electrification of the Great Western Main Line.

My Lords, in the recent National Audit Office report, the total estimated cost of the Great Western route modernisation programme was £5.58 billion. The timetable for the remaining elements is due to be part of the planning process for Control Period 6. The Government welcome the Public Accounts Committee’s recommendation to reassess the case for electrification by section and fund schemes only where worthwhile benefits for passengers could not be achieved otherwise at lower cost.

My Lords, I hear the Minister clearly. I believe he is telling us in clear terms that the Government do not intend to complete the electrification of the Great Western Railway to Swansea. If that is the case, please will he confirm that this afternoon?

I thought I was pretty clear, but obviously not clear enough for the noble Baroness. I said that some parts of the electrification have been deferred to Control Period 6, as she is aware. The Government will review the spending on that to ensure the electrification on all remaining parts that have been deferred is in the interests of customers. The Cardiff to Swansea route that the noble Baroness specifically mentioned will be subject to the next control period—CP6.

My Lords, the electrification of the east coast main line route was completed in 1990. We are expecting a massive investment by Virgin Trains East Coast by 2020. At the moment, the line frequently fails. Does the noble Lord have a timetable and an idea of the investment that is required, and when Network Rail might carry out the investment required to ensure that the investment that Virgin Trains is making will be worth it?

We acknowledge the investment that rail companies are making in rail services across the board. As regards my noble friend’s specific question, she may well be aware that Sir Peter Hendy was appointed to Network Rail specifically to look at the rollout of the electrification programme, which prioritised certain key investments. The investments that are not made in CP5 will be part of the consideration for the next control period.

My Lords, coming back to GWR, the Minister will be aware that we in south-west Wales are very concerned about any decision, on infrastructure or otherwise, that might harm perceptions regarding the isolation of areas west of Cardiff. We were promised a fixed completion date to Swansea. Can he now undertake that he will try to expedite that and give a fixed completion date for rail electrification as far as Swansea?

The noble Lord is right to raise the issue of Swansea but I believe I have already addressed that. It will be considered as part of the CP6 expenditure. However, to put this into context, £2.8 billion is specifically allocated to the electrification of the Great Western line. We are talking about 170 bridges, 1,500 sets of foundations, 14,000 overhead lines, 1,500 pieces of signalling equipment and 17 tunnels. Notwithstanding that, the Government are making investments, as I am sure the noble Lord acknowledges. The rollout of new rolling stock, which will start to be applied to the line from the end of this year, will ensure better and more efficient customer service across the whole network.

My Lords, the Great Western railway electrification scheme was designed in the Department for Transport; it was specified there and the trains were ordered there. However, the new trains and the new system will not provide a faster or better service than was the case 40 years ago, when I was general manager at Paddington. In future, will the Government look very carefully at whether there are better design and procurement methods to ensure that we get a scheme that delivers benefits to passengers and saves the taxpayer money?

I do not agree with the noble Lord’s premise. I believe that the new rolling stock that I referred to will bring passenger benefits. As I am sure he knows from his experience in and vast knowledge of the area, the IEP fleet, which is coming into service on the whole route, will run in both diesel and electric modes. That will provide flexibility in the delivery and appropriate scheduling of the electrification programme, which I accept is challenging.

My Lords, although any initiative that allows faster travel to Wales is to be welcomed, and we already have excellent road, rail and air links to south Wales, does the Minister agree that even greater commercial and cultural benefits might be gained by improving road and rail travel from north to south Wales?

I agree with my noble friend. As I am sure she is aware, Wales will benefit to the tune of £2 billion from rail modernisation. For her information, together with the Welsh Government we have allocated a further £125 million to update the initiative around the Valley Lines.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that this project started off at £800 million and has now gone up to over £2 billion, £3 billion or maybe £4 billion, and that the same team responsible for the pricing has been pricing phase 1 of HS2? As he will know—I put it to him at the Committee stage of the HS2 Bill—those costs will now be, in my estimation, £54 billion and not £24 billion. Is it not about time that we got a grip on costs?

We had several meetings away from this Chamber about the costs of HS2. As the noble Lord is fully aware, the experts who are working on the modelling and pricing of HS2 are meeting notable experts whom he himself put forward, and it will be interesting to await the outcome of that meeting.

My Lords, do the difficulties with electrification not show the benefits of building a new line such as HS2?

My Lords, does the Minister accept that, while it is vital that the electrification goes as far as Swansea and indeed beyond, there is an equally pressing case for electrification of the north Wales line through to Holyhead? Does he accept that that is important not only in respect of the local benefits from Crewe to Holyhead but in respect of the main line link through to Ireland, which has increasing importance in the wake of Brexit? What will the Government do to expedite that electrification?

The noble Lord raises a specific issue away from the line in the Question. It is important to recognise that the Government’s approach is that, where it will be of benefit to the customer and the consumer, electrification will be prioritised, and the Hendy review reflects that very objective.