THE unhappy saga of Network Rail's faltering electrification programme has taken a new twist.
It has emerged that the cost of electrifying the Great Western Main Line between Hayes near London and Swansea, Bristol, Oxford and Newbury could now be approaching £3 billion, having almost tripled since the first estimates put the cost of upgrading the route as far as Cardiff at £874 million.
The project timescales have also disintegrated, and the Department for Transport has openly admitted that the earlier deadline of 2018 can no longer be counted on.
The latest revelations came as the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee took evidence from Network Rail chief executive Mark Carne, DfT permanent secretary Philip Rutnam and the chief executive of the Office of Rail and Road, Richard Price, whose department signed off the original budget as part of its regulatory duties.
Mr Price resisted repeated calls for his resignation during the tempestuous hearing, after both he and Mark Carne had been accused by the Committee's chair Meg Hiller of 'falling asleep on the job'.
Mr Price responded to the question "Why don't you resign?" with the answer: "It would be the wrong thing at this stage... to let Network Rail off the hook."
Ms Hillier came back with: "We're not quite sure why you resigning would let the company off the hook."
Mark Carne agreed that the new delays and costs were 'extremely disappointing'. He said that there had been 'inadequate planning and scope definition' in the early stages of the project. He continued: "From the very early stages of the design of a project, as you go forward there's a significant degree of uncertainty. I fully accept that this is extremely disappointing to everybody involved."
The latest estimate for the work is £2.8 billion, but no one was willing to be committed to a completion date. Philip Rutnam of the DfT said: "You're probably aware of the schedule that there was - which was 2016 to Bristol Parkway, Newbury, Oxford, 2017 to Cardiff, 2018 to Swansea. It is clearly highly likely that there will be delays against that schedule and I'm afraid I'm not in a position at the moment to give you a new schedule."
After the hearing, Ms Hillier said the rises were 'shocking'. She continued: "It shows there's a problem both with project planning at Network Rail and also with how the regulator agrees the costs. It's just a fiction, what came up last year."
Network Rail issued a statement which described the project as "an extremely complex task that is being delivered whilst continuing to run an operational railway".
The Committee is due to issue its report by the end of this year.