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'Appalling sums of public money' wasted in Great Western upgrade

Failings in the Great Western rail line upgrade raise concerns over similar projects, an influential parliamentary committee has said.

Credit: PA

The Department for Transport (DfT) and Network Rail must learn from significant flaws in the design, planning and cost estimates of electrifying the line between London and South Wales, according to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

The problems cast doubt over planned electrification schemes, the MPs warned.

Mismanagement of the Great Western programme has hit taxpayers hard and left many people angry and frustrated. This is a stark example of how not to run a major project.

– Meg Hillier, Committee chairwoman

The scheme's budget rose from £874 million in 2013 to £2.8 billion in 2015.

Ms Hillier said "the sums of public money wasted are appalling" and accused the DfT of failing to adequately challenge Network Rail's plans.

Some sections will not be electrified until 2019-2024, despite the project being due for completion next year.

Trains powered by electricity rather than diesel can have more seats for the same length and be faster, quieter and result in fewer carbon emissions.

The DfT has claimed that many of the passenger benefits of electrification can be obtained without electrifying the whole Great Western route.

Between September and October 2016 engineers installed over eight miles of electrical equipment. Credit: National Rail

This raises questions about whether full electrification is the most appropriate action, the PAC found.

The department should reassess the case for electrification on a section by section basis and only support schemes where the benefits could not be achieved at a lower cost, according to the report.

Mark Carne, chief executive of Network Rail, said the Great Western scheme was agreed in 2009, "long before the scale of the work was properly understood".

Network Rail and the DfT have learnt the lessons from the poor early planning, he insisted.

I very much welcome the PAC’s conclusions. The modernisation of the Great Western line was always going to be a hugely complex job on the world’s oldest long distance railway. Yet in 2009 it was committed to, then started, long before the scale of the work was properly understood.

Network Rail and Department for Transport have learnt the lessons from the poor early planning of this project. Today we do not take forward major projects until they are properly scoped, properly planned and we have a robust estimate of what the cost will be.

Despite the continued challenges and complexity of the Great Western programme we are making good progress and real passenger benefits have started. This year we, and our colleagues at GWR, have already introduced the first ever electrified services between Paddington and Hayes & Harlington. Brand new trains will start to enter service in the autumn, giving passengers 24% more seats per train and more comfort.

– Mark Carne, Network Rail chief executive