The government has cut funding to upgrade Britain’s railway infrastructure by £1bn, raising questions over the future of projects ranging from electrification upgrades to station works.
The rail enhancements budget covers a programme of investments to improve passenger and freight services over Britain’s largely Victorian-era railway system.
The five-year budget, which runs to 2024, has been cut from £10.4bn to £9.4bn following last week’s government spending review, rail minister Chris Heaton-Harris confirmed in response to a parliamentary written question.
Schemes covered in the pipeline of projects include increasing capacity at Leeds station, a long-term fix to overcrowding at London’s Clapham Junction station and the electrification of lines linking Wigan and Bolton in north-west England.
The government has yet to specify what the immediate priorities for the money are.
The funding settlement is separate from the operating budget of Network Rail, the state-owned operator of the railway infrastructure, which Mr Heaton-Harris said was unaffected.
The Railway Industry Association, the trade body for UK-based suppliers of equipment and services to the global rail industry, said the decision to cut funding for upgrading the network was “very disappointing”.
“Taking our foot off the pedal now on rail investment will not help for when passengers return following the coronavirus pandemic,” the group’s chief executive, Darren Caplan, said.
“With the news today that there is over £1bn less in the funding pot, it is unclear what schemes will be going ahead and what will not be,” he said.
The government has invested billion of pounds to keep the railways running during the coronavirus pandemic, underwriting the losses suffered by train operating companies following a collapse in passenger numbers.
The number of people using Britain’s railways fell to as low as 5 per cent of normal levels in the spring, and recovered to about 30 per cent in the late summer before falling again during November’s lockdown in England.
Overall, the Department for Transport estimates that it will spend more than £10bn on its rail rescue package, and the pandemic has accelerated a shift away from the franchising model to a new contracts-based system in the biggest shake-up of the railways for a quarter of a century.
Mr Heaton-Harris also pointed to £58bn of investment confirmed for road and rail transport between 2021-22 and 2024-25, which he said amounted to “record investment in strategic roads and rail”.
Ministers have also unveiled a £500m plan to reverse the closure of some of the lines and stations axed in the 1960s by then British Railways chief Richard Beeching, who infamously cut more than a third of the rail network in a bet that the future of transport lay with the automobile.
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