The reclassification of Network Rail (NR) debt and future spending commitments as a public sector liability from 1st September 2014 led to a change in the previous investment approach for infrastructure capacity enhancement and improvement as NR was no longer able to issue debt in capital markets. In its place direct Government funding was to be provided by HM Treasury.
Although the Statement of Funds Available (SoFA) from the Government for the operation, renewal, and maintenance of the network during Control Period 6 between 2019 and 2024 included a sum of £10 billion for capacity enhancement, the previous basis of working to a rolling programme as part of NR’s Strategic Business Plan was replaced by the need to demonstrate a Strategic Business Case for each project.
As well as projects being put forward by NR, the private sector was also invited to submit proposals under the Department for Transport’s (DfT) “Market Led Proposals” initiative in March 2018. After receiving some 20 proposals, however, none have as yet been taken forward by the DfT. This is despite proposals being submitted for a wide range of projects such as the Heathrow Southern Railway project to provide a connection from Staines to Terminal 5.
In a decisive move to recover momentum, the DfT has launched an ‘Acceleration Unit’ to bring forward a number of rail and road schemes, which is to be led by Darren Shirley who was previously the Chief Executive of the Campaign for Better Transport. The initiative is in addition to the Northern Transport Acceleration Council which has been formed to deliver the flagship project for Trans Pennine electrification of the Diggle route and the addition of tracks in the Huddersfield area to enable a greater number of train paths to be available.
A further tranche of projects in the acceleration programme has been announced with enhancements to the Feltham and Wokingham signalling renewal programme to improve service flexibility and an upgrade to St Albans City station to ease passenger congestion. There will also be gauge enhancement work for freight services on the Great Western and Midland Main Lines and improvements at Darlington to allow longer trains to operate from Teesport.
Meanwhile in Wales, the devolution of powers from Westminster to Welsh Ministers are set out in a licence agreed for the operation of the Wales and Borders franchise which includes the transfer of assets from NR to enable investment by the Welsh Government in the South Wales Metro network, primarily through the modernisation of the Core Valley Lines. Rail infrastructure investment elsewhere in Wales remains a UK Government responsibility and allows the Secretary of State for Wales to agree investment priorities with the DfT.
This has resulted in a number of projects in Wales being included in the acceleration programme for which £343 million has been allocated. This includes projects to speed up journey time on the route between the Severn Tunnel and Swansea to maximise the benefits from investment in new bi-mode Class 800 rolling stock and electrification in the longer term, and for the North Wales route between Llandudno Junction and Chester.
FCP has been working for some time with the Welsh Government and its agencies, Westminster MPs and officials, as well as other stakeholders to press the economic case for improvement in train services using the North Wales coastal route where journey times are largely unchanged from the steam railway era. Inclusion in spending plans to improve journey time by line speed improvements and shorter signalling headways is a welcome part of the acceleration initiative.
Connectivity between the deprived North Wales coastal towns and North West England is particularly poor with no suitable train service for accessing better paid jobs in the Manchester and Liverpool conurbations. The situation has been made worse recently with a timetable frequency reduction between Chester and Manchester.
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