UK Politics

Did the Conservatives make false rail promises to north?

George Osborne and David Cameron Image copyright Reuters

Did the Conservatives make an election promise to electrify the railways, knowing big projects would have to be put on hold?

Rail was at the heart of George Osborne's vision of a "northern powerhouse".

The Tory manifesto pledged: "We will electrify the main rail routes, build the Northern Hub, and provide new trains for the North."

Standing before a train in Crewe during the campaign, David Cameron said the government was taking unprecedented action to rebalance the economy like "electrifying the rail lines between the main towns and cities in the north of England".

Now, not two months after polling day, schemes on two lines have been put on pause.

Labour is asking whether ministers kept the bad news quiet until after voters had spoken.

One thing is clear: there were plenty of public warnings that some big rail projects were in big trouble.

In November the Office of Rail Regulation said Network Rail had missed 11 of 44 milestones.

Series of warnings

It added: "Looking ahead, this has raised serious questions as to how the company will deliver the ambitious programme expected in CP5 (Control Period 5), particularly the electrification projects."

Control Period 5 - in rail jargon - runs from April 2014 to March 2019.

It also said Network Rail had overspent its budget by £40m in the financial year so far and the figure was due to rise to £112m for 2014/15.

That was the first of a series of warnings.

Image copyright PA

In December the ORR chief executive Richard Price wrote to Network Rail boss Mark Carne to warn that "slippage on critical milestones jeopardises the delivery and timing of important benefits to passengers and freight customers".

The warning was echoed by the chair of the ORR Anna Walker in another letter days later. The correspondence is in the public domain.

Yet another letter from the ORR that month made clear the original timetable for TransPennine electrification would slip.

'Very large' challenge

The letter said: "The original 2018 completion date for electrification works is now unlikely to be deliverable and there are uncertainties around the scope, timing and costs of the project still to be resolved."

Network Rail itself indicated delays in its plans were coming in a document published in March.

A chapter on programmes in the North of England, including electrification plans, noted: "We anticipate a number of revised milestone dates will be confirmed during that process and will be published in the June 2015 update."

The Department for Transport - run then as now by Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin - hadn't failed to notice the problem.

The top civil servant servant there, permanent secretary Philip Rutnam, told a parliamentary committee in January that the challenge to deliver some electrified routes was "very large".

Now the electrification of the Trans-Pennine route from York to Manchester and the Midland main line from York to Sheffield has been put on hold.

The Department insists that the Midland Mainline and TransPennine electrifications have been paused - not scrapped - and the government remains committed to making them happen.

Labour suggest the public have been deceived.

Trust in high office

They have asked whether the prime minister and his colleagues waited until after the election to reveal a crisis in rail renewal they knew about well before polling day.

For the politicians this will become a battle not only about competence on the railways, but trust in high office.

But - and it's a big but - sources at both the Department for Transport and Network Rail insist the fact problems were so bad projects would have to be paused only emerged a week or so before the announcement was made.

If you want information from Network Rail, one Whitehall source says, you have to drag it out.

They deny, in short, cynically withholding information for their own electoral advantage.

Even if that is true the facts remain: a key part of the Conservatives' manifesto promise to create a Northern Powerhouse was electrifying "the main rail routes". Some of those routes may very well not be electrified under this government.

And for Conservatives, and their critics, the clues that trouble was coming down the track had been plain for many months.

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