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UNIONS have branded the government “foolhardy” and “shameful” after ministers announced a £1 billion cut to Britain’s rail infrastructure which will consign the country to the “slow lane” amid the coronavirus and climate crises.
Rail Minister Chris Heaton-Harris said today that Network Rail’s funding for enhancements during 2019-24 will be £9.4bn following the government’s spending review.
This is down almost 10 per cent on the £10.4bn which rail regulator the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) had previously calculated.
The reduction was omitted from Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s announcement last week when he told the Commons the government would deliver on “record investment plans in infrastructure.”
Industry experts have said the decision is likely to affect a number of forthcoming projects, which they say calls into question Britain’s ability to rebuild following the coronavirus pandemic.
The government defended its decision, saying it continues to “invest significant sums in modernising our railway” but admitted it was “closely examining” spending to “strive for a better deal for taxpayers” given the scale of support for railways.
A Department for Transport spokesman added: “We must ensure that, where necessary, projects are reviewed to reflect the changing demand for rail services as a result of the pandemic.”
Rail unions have warned the decision threatens jobs when Britain should be investing and building its way out of the Covid and climate crisis — also hitting out at the government also over its latest environmental targets, which were announced today.
Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association general secretary Manuel Cortes said: “On the day when the government has committed itself to increased binding targets to cut emissions, it is foolhardy to cut investment to the green transport offered by our railways.
“The fact that this spending cut didn’t feature in the Chancellor’s speech, in which he lauded record investment in rail, but was instead snuck out, says everything. The Tories are duplicitous and their commitment to levelling up and investing in our futures is paper thin.
“Without doubt cutting investment in our railways is both shortsighted and reckless, particularly when borrowing costs are at a historic low.
“You can’t trust Boris Johnson and this lot as far as you can throw them.”
Aslef general secretary Mick Whelan said it was time for the government to “come clean” on what it plans to cut.
He added: “How is Britain to be rebuilt after Brexit, and after the pandemic, which has ravaged this country’s economy? And what has happened to this government’s promises?
“This revelation puts a question mark over not only some long-planned, and much-needed, improvements to our transport infrastructure, but to the whole question of rebuilding this country after the pandemic.”
Environmental campaigners hit out at the government’s continued spending on road building while snatching back cash to improve rail infrastructure.
Greenpeace UK’s Sam Chetan-Welsh said: “The Chancellor is happy to waste £27bn on road building schemes that will tear up our countryside, adding to harmful air pollution and climate-wrecking emissions that we desperately need to reduce.
“But when it comes to the little money that was available for upgrading our railways, he’s snatched it back at the first opportunity.
“This is completely indefensible, as is his attempt to bury this bad news by leaving it out of last month’s spending review.
“Rishi Sunak either doesn’t get that we’re in a climate emergency or he simply doesn’t care.”
RMT representatives demanded the government reverse the cuts and instead invest and build its way out of the coronavirus and climate crises.
The union said the spending cut could jeopardise planned works to electrify parts of the rail network, threatening both the creation of new skilled jobs and Britain’s carbon reduction promises.
General secretary Mick Cash said: “These massive cuts to rail infrastructure budgets are a shameful indictment of the government’s understanding of the importance of our rail network and fly in the face of their stated objective of building and investing our way out of the Covid-19 crisis.
“At a time when our economy and transport links need a once in a generation investment in rail to create skilled jobs and shift passengers and freight off the roads and on to rail this Tory austerity by stealth will only serve to do the opposite.”
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