A LABOUR peer has challenged the Government to explain “just what ‘on pause’ means” over delays to the electrification of key rail lines.
Opposition spokesman for transport, Lord Davies of Oldham, told peers in the House of Lords: “On pause is a very vague concept for a Government minister to employ.”
His comments came as Conservative transport minister Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon defended the progress of the Government’s electrification programme.
The Tory peer said: “The Government is committed to delivering electrification from Paddington to Swansea which is a priority as part of the largest enhancements programme since the Victorians.
“There are challenges which have arisen from electrification and construction and planning consents have taken longer than expected and that is why the Secretary of State has asked (Network Rail chairman) Sir Peter Hendy to look into both issues of deliverability and affordability and he is due to report back on that in the autumn.”
Lord Davies also criticised the Government’s flagship Northern Powerhouse project claiming it was “having the plug pulled on that”.
He said: “On pause is a very vague concept for a Government minister to employ. Isn’t it clear that this so-called priority of the West Coast Main Line is not going to see electrification for some time and would it be wrong of the Opposition to suspect that it’s something to do with funding.
“After all, the minister can properly confirm that the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s Northern Powerhouse is having the plug pulled on that, with the delays to electrification of the Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds line and the delays to electrification from London to Sheffield, so my Lords will the minister explain just what ‘on pause’ means?”
But Lord Ahmad responded: “As far as the Northern Powerhouse is concerned let me tell you the plug is truly in and the switch is turned on.”
To laughter from peers he quipped that as a general principle in life it was “often good to pause and reflect for thought”.
He added: “I suggest to the noble Lord that sometimes that’s something he should deploy. We’ve asked Sir Peter Hendy to look into the whole issue and the challenges which have arisen around electrification and he will report back and after he does report back in the autumn I’m sure we will return to this subject.”
The exchanges came as Lib Dem peer Baroness Randerson asked the Government what reasons they had been given by Network Rail for likely delays to the electrification of the Swansea to Paddington rail line, which they had previously indicated had priority status.
She asked: “Is it due to the inability of the Government to provide sufficient funding or is it because they have encountered fundamental technical problems?”
Lord Ahmad said the particular programme of electrification was a priority and not an issue of funding alone.
He said: “We’re spending £38 billion, that’s the largest investment during the next four to five years, that’s been made since the Victorian Age.”