Doubts remain over Transpennine upgrade, says Audit Office

The project to upgrade the railway across the Pennines has received qualified approval from the National Audit Office, but in a new report published today it warns that there are still many challenges to overcome and that is it is not clear how the intended benefits will be achieved.

The report has been released only 24 hours since transport secretary Grant Shapps was said to have ’more than trebled the investment for TransPennine route upgrades’ by increasing the funding from £2.9 billion to more than £9 billion. It is not yet known how much of this is new money, or whether it has come from the general budget for transport in the north of £96 billion, which was announced in the Integrated Rail Plan last November.

The NAO said the the Department for Transport had ‘developed a clear case for investment in the Transpennine route, but it has taken too long to decide how to upgrade it’.

In the decade up to the COVID-19 pandemic, journeys provided by the two main operators of the route increased from 106 million to 137 million, resulting in overcrowding. Work on the Programme first started in 2015 but was paused. Since 2017, the Department has repeatedly altered the scope of the Programme to meet differing ministerial priorities and budget constraints. As a result, £190 million of the £1 billion Network Rail has spent on the Programme has been on work which is no longer needed.

In May 2021 the Department forecast that the Programme will cost between £9 billion and £11.5 billion and that it will be completed between 2036 and 2041.

The NAO has warned that negotiations between Network Rail and operators to agree track access for construction work on the route will be difficult, which creates a risk of delays. Network Rail must gain repeated access to the track for construction, disrupting passenger and freight services, and therefore passengers and businesses. The Programme will also need co-operation from local leaders, businesses and landowners for access to land and to agree development.

There is also the problem that the Department has not yet committed funding for the rolling stock needed to achieve the Programme’s full benefits. The upgraded route will require electric trains that are compatible with new signalling systems. Until funding is confirmed there is no certainty that rolling stock will be at the required level, and neither is it clear how the Department and Network Rail will manage the cost of inflation.

Labour’s shadow transport secretary Louise Haigh said: ‘This scathing report reveals the Conservatives’ calamitous mishandling of this vital line has wasted hundreds of millions of pounds, and is set to be at least a decade late.

‘A lost decade of broken Tory promises has led to chronic delays and overcrowding on this critical route, holding the northern economy back. People in the north are sick and tired of the empty words of this discredited government.’