A report released by the National Audit Office has shown that the costs involved in the Tram-Train pilot, which will eventually see services run between the Stagecoach Supertram network and Rotherham on the national rail network, has increased five times from the original agreed budget. It is now expected that it will cost £75.1 million for the Network Rail modification works against the agreed budget of £15 million.
It has long been known that the project has suffered from severe delays – the latest estimate suggests summer 2018 for a start in services – but this report really shows just how the work seems to have spiralled out of control. With the continued delays and increased costs it has also been revealed that the Department for Transport seriously considered abandoning the project on two separate occasions.
The second of these was in July 2016 when a recommendation was actually made to abandon the project “as many of the lessons of using tram-trains in the UK had already been learned”. However the Rail Minister at the time didn’t accept this recommendation and asked Network Rail to meet the funding shortfall (the DfT had capped their contribution to £45.3 million in 2015). This was agreed and work continued on the project.
The aim of the project has always not just been about a Sheffield to Rotherham service but to see if the idea of tram-trains in the UK is a viable proposition. As a result the benefit-cost ratio has always been at the lower end of the scale, starting off at 1.0 in May 2012. However the increased costs have seen this further reduce to 0.31.
The NAO report concludes that lessons have been learnt by the DfT and Network Rail from the pilot (presumably that it seems to have been badly managed!) but that it is too early to determine whether the project will realise the wider strategic benefits.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of how the project has progressed – and whether a full pilot was truly needed as tram-trains are a known phenomenon across Europe – work now needs to be completed as soon as possible so that services can finally begin. Work should be completed by May 2018 with a start in service in the summer. Before then it is planned that the Citylink vehicles will enter service on the traditional Supertram network.