By Phil Marsh

Great Western Upgrade project falls behind schedule and goes 300% over budget under Government supervision

Published: 26th October 2015

To know the past is to know the future…

The electrification of the busier and politically expedient sections of the Paddington to the west and South Wales main line is running into troubles it has just been revealed.

The investment is the first for 40 years on the line since the iconic High Speed Trains (HST) were introduced in 1975. This followed wholesale line closures while the track and signalling was upgraded to 125mph operations. The same principle has been used for the 21st century upgrade, but it has all gone off-plan with costs tripling and timescales possibly doubling in the project.

The whispers have been deafening inside the rail Industry about this but politicians have insisted the project was on time and budget - until just after the election when public doubts began were raised. The final proof was revealed on October 21 when Network Rail Chief Executive Mark Carne admitted in Westminster that the upgrade project had gone very wrong.

Fifteen years ago, the introduction of new trains to replace the 1960s-built slam door British Rail trains ran into difficulties because Railtrack did not have enough gauging information or engineers. This meant that the safety and commercial teams could not give approval for passenger operations of the new trains. This led to fleets of brand new trains costing over a million pounds a carriage, sitting idle waiting for safety clearance. There was a mass of legal claims and counter claims totaling hundreds of millions of pounds from 2000 onwards as a result.

To know the past is to know the future

Long serving railway staff and those with average or above and beyond collective corporate memories have been suggesting that this scenario could be repeated with the Hitachi trains standing idle waiting for the track, signalling and electrical equipment to be completed. Given that the trains and infrastructure upgrade were commendably ordered and sponsored by the DfT, they have to shoulder some of the blame as to why it has gone wrong along with DfT Agency, Network Rail.

The delay makes it look likely that the fleet of electric trains might have to stand by to start revenue earning service which would be very embarrassing for the Government as the 2020 election looms. The Hitachi trains come in two variants, 100% electric powered and those fitted with diesel and electric equipment for operation away from electrified lines.

The trains were ordered three years ago to run on the Great Western and East Coast main lines at a cost of £5.8billion for a 27 year build and maintenance contract. At this time the Great Western infrastructure upgrade was estimated to cost under £900 million and this has now trebled.

Contract variation?

It is understood that former Network Southeast and Virgin boss Chris Green and BR electrification expert Don Heath are assisting the DfT with their enquiries concerning asking Hitachi for a contract variation to fit diesel engines to all the new train fleet. This2 would allow the new trains to operate from day one irrespective of electrification progress.

NR and its paymaster and guiding mind, the DfT, are currently reviewing timescales for the GW project which is well behind schedule while costs have tripled to £2.8 billion. It is reported that Chris Wilson, engineering project manager on the GW upgrade said Network Rail is working with the DfT to agree achievable timescales that tie up with the IEP programme and the subsequent GWR AT300 train project.

Electric trains are scheduled to serve Bristol in 2016, Cardiff in 2017 and Swansea a year later. These targets look increasingly unachievable the public Accounts Committee was told by NR’s Mark Carne.

Chairman’s review

The new chairman of Network Rail, Sir Peter Hendy is currently reviewing all projects and it is expected that his report will be available in November when any delay to the GWR upgrade will be announced. The DfT has ordered that all resources should be poured into this project which is why other electrification schemes have been ‘paused’ or reshaped.

A completely new timetable will be introduced with the new trains and this takes years to formulate because of the myriads of interfaces that need to be checked, so it is vital that any new date will be met. This will be agreed by the DfT who are funding the track and train schemes as well as the franchise extension.

The difficult decision the Government will have to take is to delay the electrification timetable which will have serious knock-on effects to the rail industry or to plough on regardless and risk a very public failure. If they delay introduction of the Hitachi trains, Hitachi will still want paying as per the contract as they are delivering new trains against are on time.

This is how Virgin made hundreds of millions of pounds in compensation when the West Coast Main Line upgrade was delivered late and to 125mph and not 140mph thus breaching the Upgrade contract with Railtrack.

Factory train issues

Network Rail invested in a £40million electrification train for the GWR electrification but this has not delivered forecast results. The High Output Plant System train has over 20 carriages and is in essence a mobile factory, but after two years of operation, has not delivered the anticipated outputs.

The train was designed to dig holes for the overhead wire equipment for a mile on each shift but the electrification equipment design was not compatible with the factory train’s output capability.

Here is a platform alteration…

Yet again the railway has proved itself to be short of suitably experienced engineers and now there are reports of a ban in recruitment imposed by Network Rail which will not help resolve the issues. The Government’s new rules on lifetime pension allowances have led to many engineers and experienced rail staff retiring at 55 as there is little financial incentive to carry on working facing punitive tax rates.

Another problem is that the DfT ordered trains with long 26 metre carriages, 3 metres longer than currently used. This means that on any medium or tight curve, the gauge needs to be widened to avoid a sideswipe on a platform edge or with another train on an adjacent track. Although the latter is an easier issue to resolve given the GWR was built to a broad gauge and then narrowed to standard gauge. The platforms at Bristol Temple Meads is a classic example of this problem over stepping distances to be resolved.

Don’t forget…

That despite all this, once the electric trains are running, even a few years late, the travelling public will soon forget about the delays and disruption, as with the West Coast Main Line. The wait will be worth it.

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