Will a £1.7 billion scheme deliver the goods?

South West commuters are bracing themselves for a summer of disruption as Network Rail proceeds with its £1.7 billion electrification of the Great Western main line—but two questions must be asked. Is it really going to be worth all that taxpayers’ money, and why is it being undertaken in the summer, at the height of the tourist season?

Originally, claims of a 20-minute-cut in rail time from Bath to London got locals excited and would make a real difference to their working life, but recent reports say all this taxpayers’ money and weeks of disruption will lead to a cut of just three minutes. To be fair to Network Rail, it is suggested that the work will speed up travel between Bristol Parkway and the capital by 22 minutes.

The wider context, of course, is that if politicians get their way we're about to spend £50 billion on a high speed rail project between London and Manchester - which won't help the rest of the country, whose current transport infrastructure lags far behind that already existing between Manchester, Birmingham and London.

Rail travellers are surely interested in just two things—will it be faster and will it be cheaper? But it seems that Network Rail is spending all this money on other priorities. "Electric trains emit 20-35% less carbon per passenger than diesels," says their website. "With no emissions at the point of use, they improve air quality in pollution hot spots such as city centres and stations. Electric trains are quieter, improving quality of life for people who live near the railway." 

At a recent public consultation, a Bath and North East Somerset councillor who has been liaising on behalf of the council over the project says "Bath residents will benefit from the electrification of the mainline because the new rail system will be quieter and better for the environment" but conceded that the "speed gains for commuters were marginal."

Bath traders are also getting concerned that rail disruption over the peak tourist summer months will hit their sales but, again, Network Rail has other concerns—choosing the summer months to avoid disturbing bat and newts breeding.

"Electrification will stimulate economic growth across the region by improving connections between towns and cities," says Network Rail. But it won’t do this if it’s not faster or cheaper. Some good news though: the new carriages will be able carry 20% more seats.

Tim Newark is the grassroots co-ordinator of the South West TaxPayers' Alliance. 

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