I revealed last month that there were growing concerns within the rail industry that the £7.5bn order for new Hitachi trains to replace the ageing Inter-City fleet could be put on hold or cancelled.
Andrew Foster, former head of the Audit Commission, was asked in February (by Lord Adonis) to examine the case for the contract.
His report, released today, does not come down on one side or other particularly: but Philip Hammond, the current transport secretary, has said he will defer judgement on the decision until October – as we predicted last week.
Here are the most ominous passages from the Foster report: they carry the whiff of long grass. VfM means “value for money”.
I doubt that all the credible alternatives to IEP have been identified, worked up and VfM-assessed on an equal footing with it. The review team has conducted a preliminary analysis of potentially viable and credible alternatives to IEP and found that they may be able to offer greater VfM than the current specification. These alternatives warrant further scrutiny through a fresh, comparative VfM assessment and I suggest this in the review’s conclusion.
Moreover, the affordability of IEP, as distinct from its VfM, will now have to be appraised against a very different and demanding economic landscape. A programme may promise excellent value for money but with costs that exceed the resources available.
Hitachi, which is leading the Agility consortium that still hopes to build the trains, has issued a polite and non-committal press release. It would be surprising if they weren’t hugely dismayed in private.
Meanwhile RMT boss Bob Crow (becoming a regular visitor to this blog) tells me that any further delay would be a “kick in the teeth” given Britain’s creaking rail infrastructure.