A Stormont Committee has agreed to seek legal advice after being denied access to a government-commissioned report into the £20m under-estimate of the Phase Two upgrade of the Derry rail line.
The Regional Development Committee chairman, DUP MLA Trevor Clarke, made the recommendation to the committee after they grilled Department for Regional Development and Translink officials on how the project costs estimate jumped from £20m to £40m.
Mr Clarke also branded the fact that the railway works were not secured until after it became unsafe and the City of Culture accolade was won as “scandalous”.
Committee members, including local East Derry MLAs Cathal O hOisin from Sinn Fein and the SDLP’s John Dallat, repeatedly expressed frustration qat the hearing on Wednesday over a lack of available information as they quizzed senior officials from both bodies as part of an Inquiry into the costings error at the City Hotel in Derry on Wednesday.
SDLP East Derry MLA John Dallat said that the board members behind the project at Translink should go as they had lost the confidence of people and described the issue as “a train crash waiting to happen”.
Speaking at the meeting yesterday, Philip O’Neill, Translink’s Chief Operating Officer said that the massive hike in the costs was due to a combination of factors including relocating the passing loop to Bellarena, additional infrastructure, land acquisition costs and upgrading a level crossing.
Mr O’Neill said the second factor in relation to the costs was the breaking up of the railway overhaul into smaller projects.
“Instead of doing this as one holistic project we have had to break it up into a number of projects and that has prolonged it in time.”
He said that the original estimate for the entire project was £75m before it was shelved and then revived as a three-part project in the lead up to the City of Culture year.
Speaking in defence of the Translink board, Mr O’Neill said: “I accept that this project hasn’t gone the way any of us wished.”
He also agreed that in terms of passenger numbers, the Derry line was outperforming any other line on the rail network, in marked contrast to gross under-estimates of usage projected by consultants hired by Translink several years ago.
SDLP East Derry MLA and Committee member John Dallat said that there were senior figures across Translink and the DRD who had known as far back as June that the costings had been grossly under-estimated, although this was only made public in November.
Speaking about a public consultation event held by the committee at the City Hotel on Tuesday, Mr Dallat added: “This room was packed last night with people who are sick to the teeth with the faux pas’ down through the years.
“Having listened to more than 60 people last night, people have no confidence in your board whatsoever. They are not fit for purpose and they should go.”
Mr O’Neill’s Translink colleague Clive Bradberry told the Inquiry the train upgrade was re-instated largely because of the 2013 accolade.
Mr Bradberry also admitted that the body “didn’t do enough” to allow for contingency overspend for signalling.
The committee chairman said it was “scandalous” that there may have been no upgrade but for City of Culture.
Addressing new Translink chief Executive David Strahan he said: “We had to wait until the railway line was unsafe and we got a large event to Northern Ireland. I’m bewildered about it I have to say.
“There seems to be a culture of run it down, let it go. I hope you are going to change that culture.
“The City of Culture should never have been the excuse to upgrade any rail line.”
Mr Dallat and the chairman also questioned whether Translink had asked for their money back over consultations about the Derry line and projected passenger growth.
His party colleague Joe Byrne MLA said the whole thing had been a “sorry saga that was very damaging in confidence” among those who use the line.
“As an observer from Omagh it would appear that there was a reluctance on upgrading this line for a long time.”
Concerns were also raised at the meeting over the absence of talks with transport chiefs in the south over the possibility of getting European funding to make the Derry to Belfast line European infrastructure.
Mr Strahan said it was the DRD’s responsibility to apply for and obtain the funding, with Translink acting in a supporting capacity, but Mr Clarke countered: “That can’t be done unless you propose the project.”
Mr Strahan also told the Committee that the Phase Two work on the Derry line was expected to resume in May, providing a current tendering process goes smoothly and a contractor is appointed as scheduled at the end of April, with the works to be largely completed by the end of 2016.
He added that he has personally put in place a number of tighter and more formal reporting mechanisms as well as other measures, and said that Translink were now “absolutely determined” the Derry line project would be delivered.
Mr O’Neill said that Translink had been tasked with delivering a number of projects together in the past in a very challenging environment, to which the chairman replied: “Take your halo off for a second. Don’t put yourself up on a pedestal”, adding that in relation to Derry project Translink had “failed miserably”.
“Don’t tell us how you took something from £20m to £40m and give yourself a pat on the back.”
Department of Regional Development official John McGrath later told the committee that Transport Minister Danny Kennedy now “takes the view that this project is largely back on track”.
Mr Clarke replied that DRD had proved very slow in examining their own culpability and said that the committee had been denied access to a report commissioned by the DRD to look into the issues around the Derry rail line. The report made 12 recommendations but said that these have not been made public nor passed on to the committee Inquiry.
Mr Clarke suggested that in light of this, the committee should invoke Section 44 of the Northern Ireland Act which gives them the opportunity to summons reports and suggested they seek legal advice.
“We are supposed to be able to scrutinise yourself and the Minister, what you do and don’t do and the obstructive nature of the DRD officials is making it very difficult for us to do our job,” he claimed.
John Dallat asked whether the DRD would agree that they have been “extremely slow learners”, to which Mr McGrath replied that there were clear issues in that the cost estimate, rubber-stamped by the DRD “was not fully understood by ourselves”.
Mr Dallat said: “This was a train crash waiting to happen”.