Patrick McLoughlin, the Transport Secretary, has again been accused of failing to reveal the extent of his knowledge of Network Rail’s problems in the run-up to May’s general election.
Lilian Greenwood, the shadow Transport Secretary, has discovered that the Department for Transport commissioned a review into the way Network Rail plans and costs major engineering projects in March. Mr McLoughlin only announced this review, led by former Ofcom chairman Dame Colette Bowe, in June, when he “paused” two of Network Rail’s major electrification projects that were suffering budget problems.
Although it was announced last week that these upgrades to the Transpennine route and Midland Main Line are to be restarted, state-backed Network Rail, which looks after 20,000 miles of track and has debts of close to £40bn, has been under pressure since last year.
At Christmas, there were chaotic scenes at King’s Cross and Paddington stations in London when engineering work overran, while Network Rail had been struggling to control costs on its latest, £38.5bn capital spending programme, known as Control Period 5 (CP5).
The Independent revealed in March that chairman Richard Parry-Jones, the former Ford Motor Company executive, was going to lose his job; Mr Mcloughlin replaced him with Sir Peter Hendy, the then Transport for London commissioner, in June.
Network Rail board minutes from March indicated that ministers and DfT officials were aware that some projects were facing budget problems. Mr McLoughlin says the “scale of the problems” only became apparent three months later.
A further set of board minutes, from an Office for Rail Regulation meeting in June, state: “Dan [Brown, an ORR director] reminded us of the background to the Bowe review which had been set up in March to review the process for handling the planning and delivery of enhancements in CP5 … He updated us on the latest draft of the findings which had been circulated before the Bowe liaison board meeting on 24 June.”
Ms Greenwood said: “It’s now clear that in the run-up to the election, ministers promised to deliver key projects that they knew were in jeopardy. Network Rail has confirmed that it told the DfT in March that key projects might have to be put on hold, and we now know that Patrick McLoughlin ordered a critical review of rising costs at the same time.
“[He] must explain why he told MPs that this was a new review just seven weeks after the election, when he had in fact started the inquiry three months earlier. With more cuts to projects expected in the months ahead, it’s time for ministers to come clean with passengers and Parliament.”
A DfT spokeswoman said: “Dame Colette Bowe was initially commissioned in March 2015 to carry out an internal review of the rail investment programme, as is normal practice for schemes of this size. The Secretary of State had already been open with Parliament in December 2014, and again in March this year, that there were cost-overruns and slippages on some projects.
“When the scale of the problems at Network Rail became clear in June 2015, the Secretary of State was advised for the first time to pause the electrification of the Transpennine and Midland Main Line routes. It was at that point he also decided to put Dame Colette’s work on a formal footing and commit to a full, external review that will report back later this year.”Reuse content