Tom Richmond: Tories’ cynical promises on rail hit buffers in the North

David Cameron and George Osborne pledged major rail upgrades for the North in the run-up to the election while courting voters in Yorkshire.
David Cameron and George Osborne pledged major rail upgrades for the North in the run-up to the election while courting voters in Yorkshire.
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IF DAVID Cameron wants to know why train travellers feel so betrayed in these parts, he should join rush-hour passengers on the TransPennine Express route after the postponement of plans to upgrade and electrify this Victorian railway so more people can travel in comfort.

These are commuters who pay for the privilege of having to stand on one of the country’s busiest railway lines, and who took the Prime Minister at his word prior to the election when he travelled to Leeds and said: “The electrification of the TransPennine Express is already underway.”

It was – but only one section in the North West rather than here in Yorkshire. Talk about playing with words. And that is why there is so much public anger surrounding last Thursday’s abrupt decision to put the £38bn overhaul of Britain’s ageing railways on hold, including major improvements to the Midland Mainline from Sheffield to London, until the under-performing Network Rail is “fit for purpose”.

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What Ministers did not make sufficiently clear, however, is that these plans were already being delayed because of concerns about escalating costs – a narrative deliberately hidden from floating voters.

It began on March 9 when Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin told Colne Valley MP Jason McCartney that the TransPennine Express plan would be delayed: “Although 2019 was set as the date for completion it is no longer viable and that date will slip...”

He did not make this admission on the floor on the House of Commons, but in a Parliamentary hearing away from the hurly-burly of pre-election politics. I wonder why? It was clearly news to Louise Ellman, the Transport Select Committee chairman, who had suspected this back-track a year previously.

She responded: “This is the first time we have heard about this delay. We have raised the issue before, but we have never had a straight answer. Now are there any other delays where information is available but nobody is telling us?”

Mr McLoughlin’s reply? “Work continues on the way in which electrification will be rolled out. I am not aware of any other delays...” That’s clear – or was it?

Passengers will also be intrigued by the response moments later of Philip Rutnam, the Department for Transport’s most senior civil servant, when he, too, was asked about delays to electrification schemes. “I would go back to what the Secretary of State has said and to our discussion before,” said the DfT Permanent Secretary cautiously. Pushed further, he said the inherent challenge was “very large” and “it would not be wise of me to give you specific dates for specific programmes”.

Yet the Tories continued to be economical with the truth. Having announced the TransPennine Express electrification in the 2011 Autumn Statement thanks to £20bn of investment from British pension funds, the Tory manifesto for this region promised £6.4bn of transport investment in Yorkshire and Northern Lincolnshire to cover “the electrification of existing rail lines, new and faster trains”. No caveats were given.

And on April 29 – less than 10 days before polling day – George Osborne came to Yorkshire, outlined the Conservative Party’s plans for its first 100 days in office and said the TransPennine Express electrification would be extended to include the section from Selby to Hull.

If only. Yet, because the Conservatives knew the election would be won and lost along the M62 corridor, they dared not be candid. However they might even have gone up in the estimation of some voters if they had been straight-forward and not left themselves vulnerable to the charges of betrayal.

Three other points do also need to be made as Sir Peter Hendy, London’s transport commissioner, prepares to assume control of Network Rail on July 16 and begin his review of the improvement programme’s viability which will decide whether the TransPennine Express and Midland Mainline schemes are delayed still further.

First, this postponement would not have happened if it involved the upgrading of transport infrastructure in London such as Crossrail. Once again, it creates the impression that the North is being short-changed.

Second, the response of Yorkshire politicians has been piecemeal. Too much focus has been on specific localities and this brings added urgency to the need for a political leader who can speak up for the whole of the county.

Third, the Transport Select Committee’s inquiry must get to the bottom of who knew what and when about the delays. One of the worst mistakes that any politician can make is to over-promise and under-deliver.

As for David Cameron and George Osborne, I do hope they will try to join the rush-hour throng on the TransPennine Express if they can find an inch of space in a hot and sticky vestibule. Yet I guess the invitation is slightly less enticing to these two men who were such frequent visitors to Yorkshire before May 7. After all, they won the election – and that is all that mattered to them. No wonder trust in politics has hit a dead end and will take a long time to get back on track.