HOW ironic that Chris Grayling’s travel plans in Yorkshire were disrupted on the day that the failing Transport Secretary told his many critics here – and presumably including this correspondent – to “stop talking down the North”.
Crass even by his lamentable standards, it did, however, reveal the Cabinet minister’s arrogance and ignorance nearly a year after he had the temerity to tell this region to sort out its own transport difficulties.
Businesses, politicians, commuters and others speak out because they truly care about the region and all agree that the current third-class service (in comparison to London) is totally unacceptable.
The fact that Mr Grayling does not get this shows that the region’s railways will only get back on track when he’s replaced by a Minister who recognises the opportunities of better connections between the North’s towns and cities.
Despite more investment being made available, the North-South spending divide is still stark and public trust in the Transport Secretary had broken down long before Monday’s Cabinet meeting in Newcastle – and Ministerial travel arrangements being disrupted by a faulty freight train sparking trackside fires.
After all, this is the same Mr Grayling who told the North to get its act together while pushing for a second Crossrail line, costing £30bn, to be built in London (which will benefit his Surrey constituents).
This is the same Mr Grayling who spent the last election telling voters that the Government’s intention was to honour its promises on rail electrification schemes when a decision had already been taken, according to the National Audit Office, to downgrade the Midland Mainline upgrade.
And this is the same Mr Grayling who has presided over the unprecedented timetable chaos on Northern’s services – and who has consistently failed to take action against other under-performing operators, like TransPennine Express, whose deteriorating record on reliability is now indefensible.
Now this is compounded by the Government’s obfuscation over this week’s supposed £780m upgrade of the renationalised London North Eastern Railway.
These are the East Coast Main Line track, infrastructure and service improvements promised when Virgin and Stagecoach took over services in March 2015 before defaulting the franchise. Yet, because no agreement was reached with Network Rail, the taxpayer is now picking up the bill.
And the Q&A briefing document circulated amongst policy-makers and politicians makes a mockery of Theresa May’s comment on a 10 Downing Street press release lauding her commitment to the Northern Powerhouse.
Question Seven on the Q&A is damning. It asks “When will the work finish?” The suggested response is “the work will be completed in the early 2020s”. Yet there’s an additional caveat if the official is “pushed” by any awkward inquisitor from the media. Who could they have had in mind? The document advises them to say that “the delivery plans for a number of the infrastructure upgrades planned for the East Coast Main Line are still to be finalised”.
It gets worse, hence the buck-passing between the Department for Transport and 10 Downing Street when The Yorkshire Post tried to pose questions on your behalf. Under the section that begins – I kid you not – ‘What is not included or definitely not included’, it reveals that officials are still considering whether to build additional track so the express trains promised by the Prime Minister can overtake slower services. Officials are told – ‘if pushed’ – to say ‘a decision is expected in the Autumn’.
And do you remember Mr Grayling’s promise that the DfT was committed to providing new services to Leeds and York, as well as destinations like Huddersfield and Middlesbrough, previously promised by Virgin and Stagecoach? These, say the document, will be “delivered later than planned” and “when it is possible to do so”.
The key word here is ‘when’. Just like so many of the trains, this appears to be an open-ended timetable by a Macavity-like Transport Secretary whose officials quietly let slip on the day that Parliament broke up for summer that the DfT and Network Rail were stumping up an extra £600m to ensure Crossrail 1, London’s new £15.4bn railway, opens on time.
The Government did not say where this money is coming from. Yet, given that this £600m could have been a downpayment for a new state-of-the-art trans-Pennine line, and that grandiose Crossrail stations like Canary Wharf have their own Kew Gardens-style roof terraces, it shows where the Government’s true priorities lie and why Transport for the North needs full financial and policy powers in order to take back control of this region’s railways.
And if Chris Grayling, the Minister who says he doesn’t run the railways, thinks this is ‘talking down the North’, then so be it. For, given he still thinks that the North is the end of the Northern line on the London Underground, it is this disingenuous Transport Secretary – rather than local leaders – who is doing down our region.