Plan to speed up South Wales to London rail diversion shelved
Western Mail: Nov 1 2008
by David James,
PLANS to speed up the London to South Wales train line when the Severn Tunnel is shut have been shelved amid a cut in public funding for the railways.
Nineteen schemes across the UK have been put on hold after the Office of Rail Regulation gave Network Rail £2.4bn less than it had asked for to tackle overcrowding and delays.
Among the casualties is a plan to restore a single-track 12-mile section of line between Swindon and Kemble in Gloucestershire which is the only diversionary route between South Wales and London when there is engineering work on the main line.
A spokeswoman for First Great Western said the company was “disappointed” the £32m scheme to upgrade the route to a double line, had not been approved.
It means that passengers will still face journeys of an extra hour between South Wales and London at weekends and in the evenings when the Severn Tunnel is closed.
She said: “We are obviously disappointed but we will continue to work with Network Rail and others to see if there are other ways in which this can be funded in the future.”
The regulator awarded Network Rail £26bn in its five-year report published on Thursday, some £2.4bn less than the operator had demanded.
Network Rail was ordered to make cost savings as well as being told that 19 proposed schemes costing £350m for dealing with future overcrowding had not been approved.
Also among the projects shelved were two in Cardiff to tackle future overcrowding on the city’s commuter network, the Valleys Lines. The regulator said they were not needed.
The projects were to speed up the Ninian Park to Radyr line and to upgrade the Cogan junction.
Simon Pickering, the Wales manager for Passenger Focus, said the shelving of the work was disappointing.
He said the passenger watchdog was pleased that many projects to tackle overcrowding and punctuality had been approved, including work at Cardiff’s Queen Street station, but said it would monitor the growth of passenger numbers closely to see if the budget “fully meets passengers’ aspirations”.
“It is in the fare-paying passengers’ interests that pressure is put on the industry to reduce costs – passengers mustn’t be expected to cover the cost of poor working practices or project management. Equally, the industry shouldn’t be expected to deliver a railway on the cheap’” he said.
The Swindon to Kemble line was cut back to one line amid the Beeching cuts in 1968 when one track was ripped up to save money on maintenance. Trains are forced to wait for services coming in the opposite direction, resulting in delays and restricting capacity.
The First Great Western spokeswoman said that this only affected South Wales passengers when there was engineering work on the main line. She said a £500m upgrade to Reading station over the next five years, which has been approved, would speed up normal services by increasing the number of platforms that trains to and from South Wales can use.
A spokeswoman for Arriva Trains Wales said Network Rail’s plans for the network had been an “aspiration” and that Valleys Lines trains would continue as normal.
She said: “Arriva Trains Wales will continue to work closely with Network Rail and Welsh Assembly Government looking at ongoing infrastructure improvements that can be made to the network to enhance services.”
A Network Rail spokeswoman said the organisation was still studying the regulator’s report in detail.
Wales needs this shelved rail upgrade to go ahead
Western Mail: Nov 1 2008
by Staff Reporter
THE economic downturn has the potential to jeopardise many grand projects that were due to go ahead and, despite the Government’s promises that its public spending plans are still on track, the axe is already starting to fall.
Perhaps it’s no great surprise that the Office of Rail Regulation has decided that Network Rail, the body that owns and runs the rail network, should get £2.4bn less than it wants.
Network Rail has a lengthy list of improvements that need to be made to stretches of track around the country – some of those improvements will now have to wait.
Of course it was a difficult decision: each project is worthy in its way. But some of the schemes that are now back on the drawing board would have made life much easier for individuals and businesses travelling in and out of South Wales – and should have been completed long ago.
The key problem relates to a 12-mile section that isn’t even in Wales, but between Swindon and Kemble in Gloucestershire. Trains from London to South Wales run along it when – as often happens on weekends – the Severn Tunnel is closed.
Now it seems those Sunday delays will be getting no better – an extra hour will still be added to the journey when the tunnel is closed.
The Paddington line is of vital importance to the economy in Wales, bringing tourists and businesses to the area. Anything that makes the journey longer or less convenient will only tempt visitors or investors to consider taking their money elsewhere.
There have been times too when Wales has been on the international stage – when major sporting events are held in the Millennium Stadium, for instance – and the quality of the rail infrastructure has caused national embarrassment.
The problem is likely to become more acute over the coming years as cities such as Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester are joined to London by new high-speed rail links. No such link is being offered to Cardiff or Swansea, and there is a risk that we will once again be left behind. If there is to be no high- speed link, then Wales at least needs its existing infrastructure updated.
Perhaps the only piece of good news is that another section of the Paddington line, around Reading, will get its upgrade, shaving a few minutes off the journey time.
There are other projects under threat too – commuter lines around Cardiff, already struggling with increased demand, were to have been upgraded. This will now not happen.
Clearly there is a finite pot of money for rail infrastructure work. But surely the claims of Wales are as strong as anyone’s, particularly if there is to be no new high-speed line. Network Rail and the Department for Transport should urgently find a way of making these vital upgrades.
Attention, this is your rail regulator: projects to reduce delays are cancelled
The Times: October 31, 2008
Ben Webster, Transport Correspondent
The rail regulator cancelled 19 schemes to remove pinch points on overcrowded lines yesterday after the Government ordered a cut in public funding for the railways.
Network Rail had proposed the schemes to increase capacity and to reduce delays on routes that have experienced record growth in passenger numbers. The Government has imposed a strict cap on the expansion of the network, however, to save about £1.5 billion a year.
Some of the 19 projects involved reversing cuts made by British Rail in the 1960s, when the railways appeared to be in terminal decline because of the rise in car ownership. Since the mid1990s the number of rail journeys has grown by 50 per cent and income from passengers has doubled.
Network Rail argued that the projects, which would have cost £350 million, were necessary not only to cater for future growth but to relieve already overcrowded services.
The cancellation that caused the greatest outcry among passenger groups was the plan to restore the second track on a 12-mile section between Swindon and Kemble in Gloucestershire. It is the only diversionary route between South Wales and London when the Severn Tunnel is closed.
British Rail ripped up one track in 1968 to save money on maintenance. Trains are forced to wait for services coming in the opposite direction, resulting in delays and restricting capacity on a line on which there has been rapid growth in long-distance commuting.
The track bed and double-width bridges and tunnel remain, making the reconversion to twin tracks a relatively simple task. However, the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) has refused to grant the £32 million needed for the scheme.
Other cancelled schemes include removing pinch points in West Croydon, from Didcot to Oxford, Crewe, Redhill, Birmingham, Liverpool, Buxton, Bolton and Hertford.
Bill Emery, the chief executive of the ORR, said that he did not have the power to challenge the Government’s cap on expansion despite receiving several representations saying that it would worsen overcrowding.
The Government said that it would fund Network Rail to expand capacity by up to 22.5 per cent by 2014. Passenger numbers are currently growing at about 7 per cent a year. At that rate passenger growth will be double what the Government plans to accommodate, meaning that thousands more people will have to stand on trains each day for up to an hour.
Mr Emery said: “We don’t have the power to say, ‘That’s not enough capacity’. We have already drawn attention to the forecasts of high demand and it appears that passenger growth is holding up.”
He said there was also a possibility that the Government would not deliver all of the 1,300 carriages it had promised by the 2014 deadline. The ORR has approved the extension of 500 platforms to accommodate trains that are up to 12 carriages long.
The ORR approved £26.7 billion of funding for Network Rail from 2009 to 2014, £2.4 billion less than the company said it needed. There was no money for electrification of lines up to 2014 despite the claim by the Government this week that it wanted to convert lines from diesel to electric power.
The ORR set Network Rail punctuality targets for 2014 of 93 per cent for local services in southern England and 92 per cent for other services.
Gerry Doherty, leader of the TSSA railway union, said: “Improving punctuality targets is important but it will be meaningless if NR [Network Rail] merely timetables longer journey times as it has done in the past to meet those targets. Trains running ten minutes late are already said to be on time.”
Mike Greedy, of the railway watchdog Passenger Focus, said that the cancellation of the Swindon-to-Kemble project was disappointing: “There would have been a definite benefit to passengers, especially in improving reliability.”