Tom Richmond: More rail chaos ahead fear MPs if Chris Grayling is left in charge

REGULAR readers will not be surprised to learn that the Department for Transport’s management of the railways – headed by Chris Grayling – is “still characterised by cost overruns, project delays and disruption”.

Transport Secretary Chris Grayling.

They’re not my words. They’re the damning conclusion of an inquiry undertaken by Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee following last year’s timetable chaos on the rail network.

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The criticism of Mr Grayling, and others, does not end here. There is still “too little transparency about operator profits and promised improvements to services” according to the PAC which is sceptical about the extent to which train operators are trying to redeem their reputations.

Graeme Bandeira's latest cartoon on Brexit.

Yet what makes this report even more powerful is that the conclusions were unanimously agreed by a cross-party committee of MPs and its chair, Meg Hillier, predicts further inconvenience for passengers after the 2018 “year from hell”.

And despite another profuse apology by Network Rail chairman Sir Peter Hendy when he spoke at the Great Northern Conference in Leeds this week, it is perturbing that MPs have so little confidence in the DfT’s ability, under Mr Grayling, to remedy matters this year.

Critical that the DfT did not check the feasibility of the timetable changes – the Transport Secretary famously said at the time that he didn’t run the trains – it clearly has doubts over the DfT’s current relationship with Network Rail and operators like Northern and TransPennine Express.

“The Department has not set out in sufficient detail what it is doing differently when letting new franchise contracts, nor how it is incentivising closer working to take place in those contracts already let,” said the report.

“In September 2018, the Department launched a ‘root and branch’ review of the management and operation of the railway, which is expected to report later in 2019.”

This is extraordinary. Given the key decisions on timetable alterations were being taken a year ago before their implementation in late May, it, once again, beggars belief that Mr Grayling – the politician who presided over this fiasco – is still tasked with rectifying his department’s mismanagement when he clearly does not have the confidence of the Public Accounts Committee or others.

And given this was before publication of an even more damning report into Mr Grayling’s botched and costly probation reforms, his continuing presence 
in the Cabinet shows the extent to 
which the Government continues to be sidetracked by Brexit.

WHEN the Public Accounts Committee highlighted the plight of disabled passengers, I immediately thought of the Wakefield wheelchair user who took to Twitter last weekend when she couldn’t board a Northern train.

Apparently there were too many able-bodied people standing in the space designated for wheelchairs. Leaving aside their selfishness, and inability of rail staff to help the woman, the PAC wants the Department for Transport to draw up a plan by the summer so “passengers with disabilities can use the railway”.

Too late. It should know – by now – that any plan will then have to be put out to consultation before the responses are reviewed. A semi-permament consultation, with no timetable (just like the trains), will continue before anything meaningful ever happens. And then there is Chris Grayling’s definition of ‘summer’ which is, in fact ‘winter’ because the Transport Secretary – and his team – make the ancient Pacer trains here look Olympic class by comparison.

As such, the Committee should have been insisting on a March 31 deadline – with heavy fines for train operators, or Network Rail, whenever those with disabilities receive a sub-standard service. That money can be used to improve accessibility at all stations. Sorted.

EVEN though a majority of MPs present in the Commons at any one time are engrossed with their mobile phones, there is a case for Ministers being banned from using them.

When Theresa May delivered her Brexit statement on Tuesday, Amber Rudd – the Work and Pensions Secretary who was part of this week’s rebellion by Remainers – was filmed sending text messages, or emails, on several occasions.

What was she sending – and to whom? Given the stance taken by Ms Rudd, and others, forced the PM to concede that Brexit may not happen by March 29, there is, potentially, a public interest case for these messages being disclosed.

SHADOW Trade Minister Bill Esterton said “we got there within a day” when questioned about the suspension of fellow Labour MP Chris Williamson, a key Jeremy Corbyn ally, in the row over anti-Semitism. It is nothing to be virtuous about, Mr Esterton. Your colleague should have been thrown out within an hour of The Yorkshire Post’s revelations being published on Tuesday night.

NO wonder Leeds has been ‘named and shamed’ this week as one of the most polluted areas outside London when its traffic lights appear to be permanently stuck on red. Until they’re fitted with traffic-controlling sensors, rather than being at the mercy of council bureaucrats, nothing will change.

TO those who back a new referendum on Brexit, how will this unite the country when MPs can’t agree on the wording of the proposition to be put to the public?

IT could be worse. At least no leader here has been accused of being a ‘racist’, ‘conman’ or ‘cheat’ – the simultaneous claims levelled against President Donald Trump this week by his former lawyer Michael Cohen. Yet.