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Rail's gruelling time

AGENDA

The Department for Transport is pouring £1 million a week into London's Crossrail. At the same time light rail schemes across the country are begging for cash and being ordered by Alistair Darling to slim down. Andrew Hankinson asks: why the disparity?

AS ALISTAIR Darling prepares to pour £16 billion into Crossrail, he is applying a vice-like grip to rail schemes across the rest of the country. Projects at Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool are being squeezed for every penny and having to make slashing cuts to their plans.

The secretary of state for transport seems to have lost patience with rising costs on these schemes and is acting like the master of a Dickensian orphanage when anyone asks for more.

It may be a case of drawing the purse-strings a little bit late, with the amount of money already spent on the schemes being revealed during parliamentary questions earlier this month.

So far £199 million of taxes has been spent on phase three of Manchester's Metrolink, £36 million on Liverpool's Merseytram and £39 million on the Leeds Supertram. Liverpool and Manchester are still confident of going ahead ? with their tails docked ? but the £355 million Leeds scheme is looking a lot less optimistic.

Supertram has been left in limbo after MPs departed Westminster last week for the summer recess. Bosses at the scheme now feel they have not been left enough time to get the scheme up and running before compulsory land purchase orders run out in March 2006, prompting a series of verbal attacks on the DfT.

Mark Harris, joint leader of Leeds City Council, said: 'It is disgraceful that the Government is treating Leeds in this offhand manner. Alistair Darling and DfT officials are fully aware that we are fast approaching a date beyond which the scheme would be extremely difficult to deliver, due to the expiry of compulsory purchase orders, yet they still refuse to make a decision.

'This ref lects the Government's lack of any clear policy on transport or on the development of the cities and regions outside London and the south-east. We will be calling for an urgent meeting with DfT officials.' Andrew Carter, joint leader of the council, said: 'What is the point of the Government publishing grand strategies such as its 'Northern Way', which claims to be a strategic plan to increase investment and economic drive across the north, and then being unable to make a decision on a vital element of that plan such as Supertram?

Where is the strategic thinking? Does the Government's left hand know what the right hand is doing?' Councillor Karam Hussain, chairman of West Yorkshire transport authority Metro, said: 'If we were to run out of time, Leeds would face a lengthy new public works inquiry and procurement process, which would set the long overdue and much needed scheme back further and cost millions more.' Meanwhile, the £238 million Merseytram, which will be built by Laing O'Rourke if given the go-ahead, is still waiting on a decision for its funding. Last month Mr Darling refused to give the scheme any more than the £170 million promised in 2002, despite massive increases in construction costs.

Mark Dowd, chairman of transport authority Merseytravel, said: 'This was the figure we had asked from the Government towards the overall cost in 2002 and which had been agreed in principle.

'Since then the price of steel has increased by more than 40 per cent and construction costs have increased by 20 per cent. We are asking for nothing more than the original £170 million index-linked with inf lation, which would amount to £204 million and not a penny more.' Mr Darling has refused to hand over any more cash and bosses at Merseytravel are now looking for money from the regional development fund. Once that is in place transport minister Derek Twigg is expected to give the scheme the green light, handing over the £170 million originally agreed. The decision should come in the next few weeks.

The other big tram scheme is the third phase of Manchester's £700 million Metrolink, which is receiving £520 million from the DfT coffers.

Mr Darling threatened to remove Government funding last August due to rising costs, which were approaching £900 million. A joint venture of Nuttall and Mowlem had been vying for the massive contract with Serco, but the procurement was scrapped due to the funding problems. The bidders had spent millions.

Greater Manchester Passenger Transport Executive director general Chris Mulligan said at the time: 'I'm not sure the Government knows how much damage it is doing to the private sector's confidence in the light rail industry by blowing hot and cold like this. Let me make it clear that it was banks and the Government that lost their nerves and not the consortia that were bidding.' The scheme is now back on track after a hard fight by the transport authority. No more money from Government was forthcoming, so it will apply to the Transport Innovation Fund. Bosses are also looking at making a further £40 million cut and the scheme has been split into the three new lines, which will all go to tender separately.

The Government has been spending £1 million a week for the past three years on preparing Crossrail ? money which would have most regional schemes on site by now. The local politicians and transport leaders feel aggrieved because of the perception that London is swallowing up the transport cash at the expense of the rest of the country. Now that the capital has won the Olympics, it is difficult to see that changing.

Crossrail and the Commons

DESPITE the continued uncertainty over regional light rail, London will finally get Crossrail after the hybrid Bill to allow the rail link to be built was passed in the House of Commons last week , writes Russ Lynch.

But doubts still remain over the Government's funding commitments to the scheme. Politicians in the day-long debate questioned whether private companies would be willing to risk their cash following the Government's decision to put Railtrack into administration.

Conservative transport spokesman Alan Duncan told the House: 'We need a clearer picture of the structure of funding. Following the demise of Railtrack, one must ask whether businessmen will like taking a risk on a project such as Crossrail with the Government as a partner. Strong reassurance, and now possibly guarantees, will need to be given if people are to risk tens, if not hundreds, of millions on a project of such a scale.' There was also doubt in the mind of some politicians over the Treasury's commitment to Crossrail. Fellow Tory Eric Pickles said: 'We are being asked to vote for probably the largest civil engineering project in Europe this century without any genuine certainty about how it will be funded.' And John Hayes added: 'There are even more profound doubts about whether the Treasury is really behind the project.' Transport secretary Alistair Darling said the cost of Crossrail would be between £15 and £16 billion in pure cash terms ? although more sceptical MPs said construction costs would be likely to hit £20 billion by the time the scheme is completed.

The Crossrail Bill gained a majority of 370 but a House of Commons select committee will now consider petitions on potential changes to the route, which can be submitted until September.

The route currently runs from Maidenhead and Heathrow in the west to Shenfield and Abbey Wood in the east via major London terminals at Paddington and Liverpool Street.

Some politicians ? including local MP Martin Salter ? want the route extended further to Reading at a cost of £300 m illion.

Former construction minister Nick Raynsford warned that Crossrail and the vast undertaking of preparing for the 2012 Olympics would be tough for the industry to cope with. He said: 'Two major infrastructure schemes on that scale will undoubtedly put pressure on the capacity of the construction industry. There are implications for prices, skills and general capacity issues.

'These difficulties will need to be carefully addressed but I hope that ministers will not allow these challenges to be used as an excuse for a further substantial delay in the project.' Mr Raynsford pointed out that the scheme had first been mooted in 1989 and added: 'It would imply a serious loss of nerve and confidence if Crossrail, which has already been 16 years in gestation, were to be kicked into touch for a further seven because of the Olympic Games.' Construction is planned to begin in 2007, with complet ion in 2013.

But as MPs pointed out, a long road lies ahead before the project finally gets off the drawing board and onto site.

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