Network Rail into the breach as private firms snub Borders line construction

A YEAR ago, three high-powered private consortia, selected by the Scottish Government’s Transport Scotland agency, were in the running for the £230million contract to build the 35-mile rail link from Edinburgh to Tweedbank.

Last November the process was knocked off track when one of the contenders, the New Borders Railway Consortium, dropped out following the withrawal of one its key partners, US-based rail builder Fluor.

This summer, two became one when IMCD, comprising building giant McAlpine, Spanish rail firm Iridum Consesiones de Infrastructuras and Carillion Construction, slipped into the sidings.

But confirmation that the wheels had finally come off the procurement competition came on Friday when Scottish transport minister Keith Brown MSP announced the cancellation of the process.

Instead, Network Rail, the Westminster government-created owner and operator of most of the rail infrastructure in England, Scotland and Wales, will carry out the construction work, with the project still, according to Mr Brown, due for completion by December 2014.

The news came amid speculation that the sole remaining potential bidder – Dutch-based BAM – had sought more than the maximum £230million being sought by Transport Scotland for a project which has already accounted for an estimated £60million in costs from the public purse, including land acquistion and infrastructure improvements.

Mr Brown said the project would be delivered by Network Rail in a “new railway partnership” aimed at achieving best value for money.

“Despite earlier enthusiasm from the bidders, it is disappointing the two consortia dropped out for their own commercial reasons,” explained Mr Brown. “Following the withdrawal of IMCD ... we said we would consider our options to find the right way forward to deliver the project for the best value in the shortest possible time and this announcement concludes that process.

“Network Rail has confirmed it is pleased to be asked to take this project forward and I am confident it is able to deliver it within budget and with significant ongoing savings to the public purse. I am pleased to have this opportunity to build on the success of the Airdrie-Bathgate rail improvement project which also featured a partnership between Transport Scotland and Network Rail.

“We have amply demonstrated our ongoing commitment to the project with the investment of £60million already.”

Paul Plummer, group strategy director of Network Rail, added: “Having successfully completed the Airdrie-Bathgate rail link project on time and to budget, we welcome this opportunity to work with the Scottish Government towards the delivery of another important piece of new railway infrastructure in Scotland.”

Predictably, the announcement met with a mixed response.

Councillor David Parker, leader of Scottish Borders Council which sponsored the legislation for the railway’s return, and SNP MSP Christine Grahame both hailed it as “fantastic news”.

But their political opponents were scathing, with South of Scotland Lib Dem MSP Jim Hume dismissing the decision as “an embarrassing U-turn”, while Tory MSP John Lamont (Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire) claimed the lack of competition for the project was a source of “real concern”.

Mr Parker told us: “I’m delighted at this news which will ensure the project’s successful delivery and mean the completed link will be part of the Scottish rail network from day one.

“I have long held the view the best way to take the project forward was for Network Rail to play a full and active part ... this is an exciting development and ends the uncertainty caused by bidders withdrawing. There can be no doubt this is very good news for the Borders.”

Ms Grahame concurred. “I have worked tirelessly to ensure this region of Scotland gets the transport services it deserves and this [announcement] will ensure the work will be delivered on time and on budget.”

But Mr Hume blasted: “After months and months of speculation, dodge and delay, the transport secretary [Keith Brown] has finally come clean on who will deliver the long-awaited Borders rail link.

“With problem upon problem with external contractions, his government has had to perform an embarrassing U-turn to get this project back on track.

“The line is vital for the economic development of the Borders, so I am pleased the project is moving again. We need to see an end to the dither and delay and it is now the SNP’s responsibility to ensure the project is delivered.”

Mr Lamont, who has always insisted railway spending should not be at the expense of publicly-funded transport investment across the region, told us: “Yet another vital transport project has hit the buffers. Following the tram fiasco in Edinburgh, the SNP can ill afford a further disaster, but by ending competition to build the Borders railway I fear we are on course for exactly that.

“My concern now is that taxpayers’ cash is not spent wisely. We must do all we can to protect public money and ensure it stretches as far as possible.

“What’s more, we must ensure that every community in the Borders has access to good public transport links – not just those in and around the central Borders.”

Councillor Nicholas Watson, chairman of the anti-rail Borders Party, said: “The construction industry has now confirmed what many of us have always said: that the business case for the railway is a fudge. Network Rail was always sceptical about this project. It won’t just start building it now; instead, it will go away and do its sums and it will be interesting to see what figures it comes up with.”