Page last updated at 15:46 GMT, Friday, 26 February 2010

Intercity train upgrade postponed until after election

Computer-generated depiction of one of the new trains
The plan is billed as the biggest train investment in a generation

Plans to replace the ageing fleet of intercity trains have been postponed after running into financial trouble, Transport Secretary Lord Adonis says.

Lord Adonis said an assessment of the multi-billion pound, 30-year procurement plan had been ordered.

The "super express" fleet is due to replace 30-year-old trains on the Great Western and East Coast main lines.

Shadow transport secretary Theresa Villiers said the programme had been blighted by incompetence at every turn.

Lord Adonis said difficulties with finance and slowing passenger growth had affected the project.

A "reduction in the capacity of the debt market to support the transaction" had made an impact, he said.

'Independent assessment'

But he added that good progress had been made, with Agility Trains being announced as the preferred bidder in February 2009.

It was "not appropriate" to enter the contract before the election, he said.

The government had also had to identify "appropriate adjustments" after it and Network Rail committed to electrifying the Great Western Main Line from 2016.

The best way to get value for money would be to give train companies a greater role in buying their own rolling stock
Michael Roberts
Association of Train Operating Companies

"This has inevitably extended the contractual negotiations, which are not yet complete and would not be so until mid-March at the earliest.

"In all the circumstances, the government does not believe it would be appropriate to enter into this particular contract in the immediate run-up to a general election," Lord Adonis said.

He said Sir Andrew Foster, former controller of the Audit Commission, would provide an independent assessment within three months of the "value for money of the programme and the credibility and the value for money of any alternatives which meet the programme's objectives".

'Broken promises'

The Department for Transport brought the rail industry together to plan the upgrade, known as the Intercity Express Programme.

A spokesman for Agility Trains - a consortium made up of John Laing, Hitachi and Barclays - said it was "disappointed" a contract would not be concluded before the general election.

Ms Villiers said: "With the most overcrowded trains under Labour running at over 170% capacity, Lord Adonis has badly let down passengers by failing to keep his promises on additional capacity.

"This is the latest in a long line of incompetence and broken promises from Labour."

The first of the new trains are scheduled to enter service on the East Coast mainline in 2013, and to be fully operational from 2015.

The fleet will link London with Cambridge, Leeds, Hull, York, Newcastle and Edinburgh and with the Thames Valley, Bristol and South Wales.

Lord Adonis said it was "critical" for rail passengers that the right long-term decision be made because existing stock dated back to the 1970s and needed to be replaced.

"If Sir Andrew reaffirms that the Intercity Express Programme is better than the alternatives, my intention would be to proceed with the project in the next Parliament, subject to satisfactory resolution of all the contractual issues," he said.

'Waste of money'

The Association of Train Operating Companies said it was vital there was no delay in reaching a decision on the project.

Chief executive Michael Roberts said: "The best way to get value for money would be to give train companies a greater role in buying their own rolling stock.

"This would get things done quicker and cheaper, ensure that the right rolling stock gets to the right places at the right time and give passengers and taxpayers the best deal."

Lib Dem transport spokesman Norman Baker said the government had already wasted millions of pounds on the scheme.

"This is a hugely controversial contract and it is right to postpone it, but it should not have got this far in the first place," he said.

Anthony Smith, chief executive of the independent transport watchdog Passenger Focus, said: "Passengers desperately want to see these new trains with more seats and a more comfortable journey in service as quickly as possible.

"We hope whichever party is in power after the next election will pick up these plans and move the project ahead as quickly as possible."

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