HERE are five words that I rarely get the opportunity to write: I agree with Chris Grayling.
I refer to the Transport Secretary’s desire to increase capacity on the railway network. Britain, and the North in particular, needs bigger and faster trains PDQ.
Yet it is difficult to believe or trust anything that this Cabinet minister now says or does. I’m not alone – Parliament’s Transport Select Committee was equally incredulous this week.
When he tried to defend the decision to scrap the electrification of the Midland Mainline, and other major routes, his obfuscation epitomised everything that is wrong with this Government.
Pressed to explain the rationale for cancelling this much-promised scheme in favour of bi-mode trains, committee chairman Lilian Greenwood accused Grayling of withholding the full business case from MPs. “I’m disappointed that we don’t have the full information in front of us,” she told the Secretary of State,
Grayling disagreed – he said there was no justification for spending £1bn on an upgrade that would cut journey times between Sheffield and London by just a minute. “You are asking us to take your word for it rather than provide the full business case?” countered a disbelieving Greenwood.
And so it went on, the Transport Secretary trying to explain that these were “capacity projects” and not “traction projects” while committee members tried to make sense of documents obtained under Freedom of Information laws.
So, Greenwood asked, can Grayling’s much-vaunted bi-mode trains, which can operate on all rail routes, actually travel at 125mph as stated by manufacturers?
“What we are experiencing is the 125mph speed is realistic,” bluffed the Transport Secretary.
At one point, Greenwood was so exasperated that she asked Grayling disdainfully: “Are you suggesting the evidence in front of you isn’t reliable?” as he appeared to suggest that bi-mode trains could, in turn, be superseded by technological advances.
When it was put to Grayling that the Department for Transport must have got it “completely wrong” if plans to electrify the Midland Mainline and TransPennine line – which he championed during the election – did not justify the expense, he effectively hung his predecessors and officials out to dry. And, when challenged about the expense incurred to date on the Midland Mainline, he said no costs had been incurred – before conceding that some bridges had been rebuilt north of Derby. “There may have been some stuff around the edges,” he backtracked.
How much? This matters because Grayling’s evasiveness continues to bring the May government into contempt and make a mockery of the Prime Minister’s decision not to sack her 2016 leadership campaign co-ordinator in her recent reshuffles. What does he have to do to be fired or is he bullet-proof?
The Prime Minister says she’s a One Nation leader who believes in the Northern Powerhouse. Yet her Transport Secretary wants Crossrail 2 in London to take precedence. Planned transport investment in the capital is still two-and-a-half times higher per person than in the north of England, according to the IPPR North think-tank.
The Prime Minister says she wants to help “just about managing” families. Yet her Transport Secretary was in the Middle East when the five per cent New Year rail fare hike took effect.
The Prime Minister says she would like the public interest to be put before the “privileged few”. Yet her Transport Secretary is allowing Stagecoach and Virgin to terminate the East Coast Main Line rail franchise because they under-estimated the route’s financial value.
The Prime Minister says she wants greater morality in the corporate sector. Yet her Transport Secretary approved a major contract with construction giant Carillion over HS2 despite warnings that the company was in financial trouble.
It’s little wonder that former Tory minister Nick Boles – one of the more loyal Conservative MPs – told the Prime Minister at the weekend that her Government “constantly disappoints” and that it is “time to raise your game”.
Despite the pressure of Brexit, May has had more than 18 months to address the “burning injustices” she highlighted on the day that she became Prime Minister.
First she was going to hold big business to account. Then she wasn’t. Now there’s to be a consultation about punishing executives who “line their own pockets”.
Just like the stop-start trains, May needs to get the Government back on track and deliver the compassionate Conservatism she originally promised.
Be bold. Challenge Labour to vote down reforms in the Commons. Better to attempt to change Britain for the better than not try to do so. Be honest and trustworthy. And shunt the Transport Secretary off to the political sidings and replace him with a dynamic Minister who wants to make their reputation.
The longer Chris Grayling takes passengers and the taxpaying-public for a ride by over-promising and under-delivering, the more damage he will do to a Prime Minister and a Government that is even slower than the antiquated Pacers operating on this region’s railways.