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Network Rail’s Enhancements Pipeline

Volume 806: debated on Wednesday 21 October 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty's Government what is the purpose of the review of rail schemes in Network Rail’s enhancements pipeline; whether that review includes consideration of (1) the viability, and (2) the business case, of each scheme; when the review will be completed; whether the outcome will be published; and whether the High Speed 2 project will be subject to any such review.

My Lords, our flexible pipeline approach to funding rail infrastructure enhancements means that we continually review our portfolio of projects, including the impact of Covid, to ensure that they are making the best use of taxpayers’ money. The High Speed 2 project was subject to a rigorous, independent review this year and was comprehensively reset with a revised budget and schedule.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer. However, it is now six months since the coronavirus lockdown started. Surely the Government have done some work on demand for travel given the continuing trend for working at home and the likely long-term effect that this might have on rail travel, whether it is commuter services or HS2. Is it not time for the Government to produce some initial thoughts on this?

The noble Lord is quite right that there may well be long-term effects on the way that we travel in the future. However, at the moment, we are at the stage where there are many different forecasts and scenarios. As we continue through the pandemic, no single scenario is coming out as the most likely. However, we will consider the future demand requirements for rail on all the enhancement projects in the pipeline.

Will the Minister appoint me to run Network Rail? I will bring to bear exactly the same skill set: I will lie about the initial cost of projects by a factor of four, just to sucker the Government into approving them; I will deliver them five, 10 or 15 years late; I will let the costs rocket out of control and not care; and I will have a salary of half a million pounds please, which is a big cost saving. Am I suitably qualified?

I am sure that my noble friend would like me to say that I will of course appoint him to lead Network Rail, but, unfortunately, he is going to be disappointed. He slightly underplays the huge developments in recent years as we established the RNEP. It was established only in 2018 and what it tried to do—and indeed does—is to put in one place, open for scrutiny, all the projects that we are considering, whether they are at the initiation, development, design or delivery stage. We provide updates every quarter; that is good transparency and provides for good scrutiny.

The Minister’s noble friend is quite right: Network Rail’s costs are outrageous. Is she aware that, back in 1988, British Rail built a new station at Tutbury on the Derbyshire-Staffordshire border for £80,000? As recently as 1998, Railtrack built four new stations on the Robin Hood line, as well as a new platform and two overbridges, for £5.3 million. Yet Network Rail is now quoting £14 million for a single platform and £22 million for a double-platform station. This is outrageous. Will the Minister tell Network Rail so, and will she tell me how she gets on if she does?

The noble Lord is right to raise the increasing costs of transport infrastructure projects. Noble Lords may know that I have a particular interest in Hammersmith Bridge at the moment. It was built for £10 million in today’s money many, many years ago; you could not get it for that now. I take the noble Lord’s point that we absolutely have to drive down costs. That is part of what we are doing with Network Rail. It is really important that we challenge the costs and make sure that they are as low as possible. If the noble Lord has any evidence that he wants to share with my department and the rail Minister, I would be happy to pass it on.

My Lords, the industry and its suppliers want, most of all, a steady and consistent workload. Will the Minister stress to her department, and the Treasury, the need to plan ahead so that this might happen?

The noble Lord is quite right, and that is one of the reasons why we have investment periods for both rail and roads. This makes sure that the supply chain knows what is coming down the track, so to speak, and is able to respond accordingly. It also gives it certainty that if a project goes through its stages then it will actually happen. One of the biggest challenges we have had previously has been a lack of certainty that projects will happen. The noble Lord will also know that the spending review has been reduced to one year. However, for some of the long-term plans—for example, CP6 for rail—it will be a multi-year settlement.

The Government’s HS2 six-monthly report to Parliament referred to £800 million of “cost pressures”. I think that is a euphemism for extra costs which will have to be paid for out of the contingency provision, which at this rate will be used up fairly rapidly. Eight hundred million pounds over six months works out at additional costs of just under £4.5 million every day, or £3,000 every minute. We support HS2, but when do the Government intend to get a grip on its costs? Setting up a ministerial task force chaired by the Secretary of State does not sound like much of an answer to that question.

The noble Lord is wrong to extrapolate quite as far as he did. We have a relentless focus on controlling costs. He is right that there are some cost pressures from the preparatory works, but we remain confident that HS2 phase 1 can be built within the target cost of £40.3 billion.

My Lords, I welcome the improvements being made to King’s Cross Station, but does my noble friend accept that on any measure of cost-benefit analysis or impact assessment, HS3, now called Northern Powerhouse Rail, will deliver more in terms of economic benefits to the north of England and the levelling-up programme of this Government that I support? When will it be built?

The project to which my noble friend refers will be considered as part of the integrated rail plan. That will look at the delivery of high-speed rail alongside all other rail investments in the north and the Midlands.

The Minister mentioned the assessment that happened for HS2, but in Jones Hill Wood there is a protected species of bat; the HS2 organisation does not have a licence and is threatening to cut down the trees anyway. I am sure that the Minister is extremely worried about this breaking of the law. Did all the law-breaking that HS2 is currently doing come into the assessment?

I was not aware of this particular species of bat that lives in this tree. If the noble Baroness could forward information to me, I will make sure that the HS2 Minister receives it.

I refer the House to my railway interests declared in the register. Does the Minister agree that electrification has a central part to play in achieving the Government’s value-for-money and decarbonisation agendas, as does the HS2 project? When will the go-ahead be given to completing paused projects, such as the lines to Bristol and Oxford and the Midland main line? What progress is being made in identifying discrete electrification projects on relatively short stretches of main line over hills, where journey times can be saved going uphill and batteries regenerated going downhill?

To answer the first part of the noble Lord’s question, any decision on new or expanded project scopes will be made after the spending review has concluded. On decarbonisation more generally, whether it is uphill or downhill, Network Rail is developing an overarching traction decarbonisation network strategy which will provide strategic advice about which technology—electrification, battery or hydrogen—would be best suited to each section of a decarbonised rail network. This would include individual decisions taking into consideration local conditions and topography, and they would be developed as needed.

My Lords, I want to concentrate on one small scheme that after years of stop and start has reached stage 2, the development stage, of the pipeline: the reinstatement of 11 miles of track between the forlorn single platform and buffer stops at Colne and Skipton. Does this review mean that the Colne-Skipton project has gone back to stock and everything will again be thrown up in the air? When will we be told we can start again?

As the noble Lord has mentioned, that particular project is at stage 2, which is the “develop” stage; it needs to go to “design” and then to “deliver” to be built or reopened. The pipeline is always very ambitious, and it is the case that a project getting into the pipeline does not necessarily mean that it will be delivered—it will depend on the value-for-money and various other considerations over that period. I cannot comment specifically on the Colne-Skipton railway, but it will be reviewed alongside all the other projects. That does not mean that it is going backwards in any process.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a trustee of the Bat Conservation Trust and say to my noble friend on the Front Bench that if she wants more information about the barbastelle bat, I am happy to give it. Does she think, with the benefit of hindsight, that the first phase of HS2 would not have got the green light considering the huge increase in cost and environmental damage in any such review as we are now looking at? [Interruption.]

I am not sure if my noble friend’s dog was asking a question at the same time as him. The Government continually review the value-for-money case for HS2; indeed, it was reviewed fairly recently by Lord Oakervee. The Government are committed to delivering this project.