Intercity Express train replacement postponed
Plans to replace Britain's ageing fleet of intercity trains have been postponed, Transport Secretary Lord Adonis has announced, while the value for money of the programme is reviewed.
Lord Adonis said the multi-billion pound, 30-year intercity express programme (IEP) had run into difficulties and he thought it was not appropriate to enter into the contract in the immediate run-up to a general selection.
All being well, there were plans to proceed with the project in the next Parliament "subject to satisfactory resolution of all the contractual issues".
In order to replace Britain's fleet of Intercity 125 trains and to invest in capacity and passenger journey improvements on the East Coast and Great Western main lines, the Government began the Intercity Express Programme procurement in 2007.
However, the requirements set out by the Department for Transport have been widely criticised by rail industry insiders, particularly the plan for some of the fleet to be 'bi-mode', incorporating both electric and 'self-powered' (in practice, diesel) traction packages. This is seen as adding extra weight without providing enough power in either mode. The alternative for routes that are not fully electrified would be to couple a diesel locomotive for the non-wired stretches, such as between Edinburgh and Aberdeen.
The Hitachi-led Agility Trains consortium was named as preferred bidder in February 2009.
Lord Adonis said that good progress had been made on the programme, but added: "Over the course of the procurement, however, there has been a reduction in the capacity of the debt market to support the transaction as originally envisaged, and passenger growth has also slowed.
"In addition the Government and Network Rail have committed to electrify the Great Western Main Line from 2016. The Government has identified appropriate adjustments to the original programme to take account of these developments.
"This has inevitably extended the contractual negotiations, which are not yet complete and would not be so until mid-March at the earliest."
Lord Adonis continued: "The negotiations are for a contract of nearly 30 years, a multi-billion pound spend over the course of many Parliaments. In all the circumstances, the Government does not believe it would be appropriate to enter into this particular contract in the immediate run up to a general election."
The Transport Secretary has asked Sir Andrew Foster, former controller of the Audit Commission, to provide an independent assessment of the programme, reporting within three months on its value for money and the credibility and the value for money of any alternatives that meet the programme's objectives.
Lord Adonis added: "The existing rolling stock dates back to the 1970s and needs to be replaced. If Sir Andrew reaffirms that the intercity express programme is better than the alternatives, my intention would be to proceed with the project in the next Parliament, subject to satisfactory resolution of all the contractual issues."
Agility Trains said: "Since designation as preferred bidder in February 2009, we have been working hard to meet the Government's requirements for the intercity express programme. We are disappointed that a contract will not be concluded before the UK general election. However, we will continue our ambitious planning for production and maintenance facilities in the UK to support the programme, in anticipation of concluding the contract under the next Parliament."
Michael Roberts, chief executive of the Association of Train Operating Companies, said: "While this may not be a surprising decision given the economic climate and the complexity of the project, it is vital that there isn't a significant delay in reaching a decision, as new trains that will improve services for passengers are much needed. "The best way to get value for money would be to give train companies a greater role in buying their own rolling stock."
Anthony Smith, chief executive of rail customer watchdog Passenger Focus, said: "Passengers consistently tell us that their top priorities for improvement on the railway are more trains, punctual services and being able to get a seat. Passengers desperately want to see these new trains with more seats and a more comfortable journey in service as quickly as possible. We hope whichever party is in power after the next election will pick up these plans and move the project ahead as quickly as possible."
*Hitachi to build a new generation of trains for Britain (12 February 2009)