SCOTLAND’S flagship rail project faces being delayed by up to three years because of major engineering and construction obstacles to its scheduled completion in 2016.
The £650 million electrification of the main Edinburgh-Glasgow line to provide faster journeys and more seats may not be finished until 2019, according to industry sources.
Key hurdles that have now emerged include the need to close part of the route for up to three months for work on a tunnel and for a deal to demolish part of a hotel so platforms at Queen Street station in Glasgow can be extended to take longer trains.
Experts believe the range and complexity of these issues, which involve a large number of public and private sector organisations, are likely to delay the electrification scheme – known as the Edinburgh Glasgow Improvement Programme (Egip).
An industry source said: “Detailed designs are not likely to be completed until next year, then the negotiation and acquisition process is likely to go on until the end of 2015. If that happens, there is no way the longer platforms can be completed by 2016.”
Transport Scotland, which is in charge of the project, insists it will be finished on time, but admitted its “delivery programme” is not expected to be agreed until later this year. Detailed information about the scheme, on which more than £70m has already been spent, has now been removed from the project website.
This is despite transport minister Keith Brown telling Labour last August, a month after announcing that the project was being scaled down from its original £1 billion budget to save money: “Details of the changes in the Egip implementation plan will be available soon.”
Brown has said the project would be the catalyst for hundreds of new jobs and “provide a major boost to the wealth of Scotland and to its long-term economic sustainability”. However, it is now seven years since the original scheme was announced.
Last July, Brown announced that initial plans to increase the frequency of trains from four to six an hour had been scrapped in favour of extending existing services from six to eight carriages. The truncated scheme would also bring down the current 50-minute journey time between Scotland’s two largest cities by only six to eight minutes rather than the previously planned 13 minutes.
One consequence is that, at Queen Street station, platforms must be extended south towards George Square to accommodate the longer trains because of the tunnel at its north end.
However, this means agreement will have to be reached with the Millennium Hotel for the demolition of its west wing, built across the station frontage. Transport Scotland said it would have to be compulsorily purchased if no deal was reached.
A previously-planned redevelopment of the station, dovetailing with expansion of the adjacent Buchanan Galleries shopping centre, is also having to be reworked.
The shopping centre said the scheme, which would involve direct links to shops from a new mezzanine level of the station, is not due to be finished until 2017.
Crucially, the electrification of adjacent lines, which are used to divert trains during disruption, has also been postponed, with Network Rail saying it hopes to complete them by 2019. These include stretches between Cumbernauld and Falkirk Grahamston, Dunblane and Polmont, and a loop via Dalmeny, saving £100m.
A new curve, or “chord” on the loop, has also been shelved, that would have enabled trains to run in and out of Edinburgh without having to reverse at Dalmeny.
However, postponing the Dalmeny work is expected to cause major disruption to passengers because the flood-prone Winchburgh tunnel in West Lothian will have to close for up to 12 weeks.
This is because significant drainage work is required as part of lowering the track level to accommodate overhead wires.
Although Edinburgh-Glasgow passengers will be able to use another line via Bathgate instead, those travelling between Linlithgow, Falkirk, Stirling, Dunblane and the capital will be left without a service.
It is expected the Dalmeny loop could only feasibly be used as an alternative route at weekends because of the time taken for drivers to switch from one end of their train to the other at Dalmeny.
The potential delays brought a strong response last night from politicians and rail campaigners. Richard Baker, Labour’s infrastructure and capital investment spokesman, said: “This is a key project for the Scottish economy and the SNP government’s handling has been shambolic from the start.
“Having slashed funding for this project by a third, it has now taken nearly a year to uncover a number of serious problems and we could be waiting until 2019 before this is completed.
“Transport minister Keith Brown has to bring some real focus to this project or its economic impact will be lost.”
Liberal Democrat transport spokesman and former transport minister Tavish Scott said: “Ministers cut back the plans last summer. It’s clear they had no idea of the impact of their changes and downgrades. At the time they said it was ‘full steam ahead’. That now looks like a hollow boast.”
Colin Howden, director of transport campaign group Transform Scotland said: “This is Scotland’s flagship rail investment project so it would be deeply disappointing if it was to be significantly delayed.
“It is imperative the government ensures electrification of the main line between our two main cities be undertaken as soon as possible.”
Transport Scotland said the revised Egip scheme “will enable a more affordable and achievable implementation plan which will still deliver the programme’s aims and ensure the best value for the public purse”.
Its spokeswoman said: “Any suggestion that the Edinburgh Glasgow Improvement Programme is delayed by three years is nonsense. In fact, Transport Scotland is working closely with Network Rail and the ORR to agree a delivery programme for EGIP as part of the £3bn plus programme of rail investment set out by the Scottish Ministers last year in their High level Output Specification.
“The first phase of the scheme will see electrified services introduced on the Cumbernauld line in time for the Commonwealth Games in 2014 and EGIP electrified services will be introduced into the December 2016 timetable.
“Decisions regarding the timing and specification of future phases will take account of our recently announced proposals to take forward planning for a High Speed Rail link between Edinburgh and Glasgow, a link that will bring knock-on benefits for the rest of the rail network in the central belt.
“It is only right and proper that we fully consider this along with wider capacity and demand requirements of our rail network. We are working closely with Network Rail and Buchanan Galleries to agree a delivery programme for the EGIP improvements at Glasgow Queen Street. We have also asked Network Rail to develop a track Access Strategy for EGIP that minimises disruption for the travelling public.
The spokeswoman said other parts of the original Egip scheme, including the Dalmeny chord “could all be delivered later”.
However, they would depend on plans for the separate high-speed line between Edinburgh and Glasgow, which ministers want to open in 2024.
A Network Rail spokesman said: “We are currently working closely with Transport Scotland to plan the delivery of the Egip programme.”