railway electrification

UK urged to decarbonise railways with multi-billion-pound electrification plan

MPs on the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) have said the UK’s rail system lacks “strategic direction” and have expressed disappointment at the slow progress of rail electrification.

In a new report, the body found that public expenditure has been rising steadily in recent years, with the railways receiving £5.1bn from taxpayers in 2019–20, a 99.7 per cent increase in real terms from 2015-16.

This burden on public funds has been further exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic – since March 2020, an estimated £8.5bn has been provided to the system.

Statistics from the Office of Rail and Road in October showed that the number of rail journeys in the UK dropped by more than 400 million between April and June last year sit at levels not seen since the Victorian era.

The PAC urged the Government to make “tough choices” and determine priorities for the future of rail as well as implement measures to ensure a net zero railway.

Electrification of the network is the key mechanism for delivering rail decarbonisation, the report found, which will require significant investment of between £18bn to £26bn.

“The Department’s track record on rail electrification projects reflects in its own words a “feast or famine” approach, which has directly caused boom and bust problems in the supply chain for the SMEs involved in the delivery of these projects and uncertainty for procurement of rolling stock,” it said.

In March, MPs said the UK would need to undergo a 30-year programme of electrifying its railways “as a matter of priority” if it is to succeed to achieving its Net Zero carbon aims.

While a broad programme of electrification was underway until 2017, the former transport secretary Chris Grayling scrapped it after years of delays and ballooning budgets.

The report found that the current National Rail contracts do not fairly distribute risks between the Government and operators, or provide incentives for operators to deliver efficient passenger services.

PAC chair Dame Meg Hillier MP, said: “Decent public transport is crucial to both household and national economies. Rail reform won’t work if it doesn’t work for tax-payers and fare-paying passengers, and the Government won’t achieve its economic and environmental goals without effective rail reform.

“There is everything to play for in delivering a rail system that delivers for passengers and encourages greener travel. But there are still many moving parts and a huge challenge to balance costs. The Government needs to show it can act with urgency and put passengers’ experience at the centre of its reforms.”

Darren Caplan, chief executive of the Railway Industry Association (RIA), agreed with the PAC that electrification is “essential” to meet the Government’s Net Zero decarbonisation goals.

“As the Committee highlights, delivering a rolling programme of work, without the ‘boom and bust’ investment profiles we’ve seen in the past, is a cost-effective way to electrify the UK’s intensively used rail lines. This certainty will also help to retain key skills and enable innovation, supporting green jobs and economic growth at this crucial time.”

A spokesman from the Department for Transport said: “Our plan for rail sets out the biggest reforms to our railways in a generation, focused on the passenger, ending a fragmented, unsustainable system and delivering clear national leadership under a single body, Great British Railways.

“The unprecedented taxpayer support for rail kept services running, moving vital freight and medical supplies, transporting key workers, and protecting thousands of frontline jobs.

“This support came with rigorous scrutiny to protect taxpayers’ interests.

“Our proposals will ensure greater value for money for taxpayers and a better deal for passengers – with affordable fares and the punctual, reliable services they deserve as people return to the railways.”

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