HS2 rail link may run beyond the Department for Transport’s abilities, warns Margaret Hodge

Public Accounts Committee criticises how department handled £3.55bn Thameslink job

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Further doubt has been cast on the Department for Transport’s ability to deliver the £50bn High Speed 2 rail line on budget following a critical report into its handling of the £3.55bn Thameslink rail project.

MPs questioned the way the DfT had managed the north-south cross-London project, which is due for completion in 2018. The Public Accounts Committee found the department’s award of a £1.6bn private finance contract for new Thameslink trains was delayed for more than three years.

The MPs said the DfT “suffers from a shortage of strong project management skills” and that the core Thameslink team of five seemed “too small for a programme of this scale”.

Critics of HS2 are likely to seize on the findings to cast doubt on whether the DfT can successfully deliver Britain’s biggest railway-building project for generations. The committee expressed concern that a senior member of the Thameslink team was moving to the HS2 high-speed line project. Margaret Hodge, Chair of the Committee of Public Accounts, said the need to transfer this person “illustrates the scarcity of the project management and commercial skills” available”.

Mrs Hodge added: “It was clear as long ago as 1989 that the Thameslink route needed to be upgraded but passengers will not start to see the benefits until the 2020s. The procurement of new trains through a £1.6bn PFI deal has taken over three years longer than expected. And the timetable and approach for letting the new franchise have been revised.

“The planned completion date has been put back to 2018. But meeting the timetable for delivering the new trains will be very demanding and risky. We are also sceptical about using PFI to fund this project.”

However, the committee also said that the “DfT has done well to deliver the first phase of the infrastructure project under budget and on time”.

The comments coincided with the publication of a government-commissioned report which warned that the alternative to HS2 would be 14 years of crippling weekend route closures and longer journeys. The study, by Network Rail and Atkins, claims upgrading existing rail lines would severely affect the East Coast, Midland and West Coast main lines and double travel times between Leeds and London. The study will inform the Government’s updated strategic business case for the HS2 project, which will be presented today.

The Coalition is braced for a Conservative rebellion against the scheme in a Commons vote on Thursday, while Labour hostility is hardening. The Opposition is considering cheaper options, including boosting capacity on existing lines. David Cameron has warned that HS2 could be scrapped if Labour withdraws its support for  the project.