Tom Richmond: Another Chris Grayling snub as North makes case for transport revolution

UNLIKE this region's clapped-out Pacer trains that are finally reaching the end of the line after these antiquities were found to be in breach of the Trade Descriptions Act, the same '“ regrettably '“ cannot be said of Chris Grayling.

Transport Secretary Chris Grayling snubbed this week's Commons debate.
Transport Secretary Chris Grayling snubbed this week's Commons debate.

The Transport Secretary continues to insult Yorkshire with his continuing contempt for the region after he snubbed this week’s Commons debate to scrutinise the disparity in spending between the South and the neglected North.

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Sorry, but Theresa May now needs to explain why failing Grayling is allowed to remain at the controls of transport policy and bring her creaking administration into further disrepute.

After all, the Macavity-like Minister has previous. For the record, he boycotted last November’s debate on Northern Powerhouse rail; he failed to reply to correspondence from North East MPs for 120 days and he’s been rebuked for not having the courtesy to inform local MPs of campaign visits.

Grayling’s insults now rival the number of trains cancelled on the snow-hit railways, and this is before the numerous breakdowns in policy-making on his watch. Broken promises on rail electrification; backing unproven bi-modal trains; ineffectual powers for Transport for the North; the early termination of the East Coast Main Line franchise amid scandal and now sales of advance tickets being reduced because Network Rail has been unable to confirm future timetables due to engineering work.

Yet, while he continues to find time to advance £30bn plans for a second Crossrail line in London before the first route is even complete, he might have learned something had he had the humility, and courtesy, to attend Tuesday’s debate led by Hull North MP Diana Johnson and listen to the points made.

His Cabinet colleagues are more respectful – Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson was present for part of Monday’s exchanges about the funding of the Armed Forces – and the campaigning Hull MP spoke for all fed-up rail commuters and motorists when she said Ministers should be held to account.

Yet how does the Government respond? The no-show Grayling was represented by his newly-appointed deputy Jo Johnson (brother of Boris) who also just happens to be the Minister for London. Talk about a blatant conflict of interest when the North-South funding divide – presided over, in fairness, by successive governments – is now actually stopping the national economy in its tracks.

As the Hull MP said, there is a case for a “more ambitious approach to transport spending that leaves no citizen, no nation and, crucially, no region behind, and that will boost economic efficiency and growth post-Brexit”.

It’s all the more regrettable Grayling was not present to hear MPs from the North, and rest of the country, make this case. For, while, in fairness, transport spending has gone up, this region is still paying the price for decades of under-investment.

It’s also disingenuous of Ministers to hail HS2 as the long-term solution. It’s not. Though a new high-speed rail line (if built) will increase capacity on existing routes, today’s commuters cannot wait 20 years or so. They want, and deserve, improvements now and expect the DfT to be making a far more persuasive case.

And this is why the landmark report by the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, headed by former chancellor George Osborne, is precisely the type of future investment that needs to be made now if the Government wants to give young people the very best start in life.

It calls for work on Northern Powerhouse Rail, a project to reduce journey times across the region, to begin now so it can be completed by 2032-33 when the Northern leg of HS2 is also due to be complete.

Why the urgency? It would mean children born last year could explore further education, apprenticeships or jobs opportunities across the region, or further afield, by the time of their 16th birthday and without having to worry about sub-standard transport links.

After all, it takes 61 minutes to travel between Bradford, the UK’s youngest city, and Manchester at present. Under Northern Powerhouse Rail, this journey time could be reduced to 20 minutes with a bit of vision – and commitment from the Government.

The potential prize? According to Northern Powerhouse Partnership, it foresees a £100bn boost to the North’s economy if east-west links across the Pennines begin to rival London’s Crossrail schemes – or the type of investment taken for granted in other parts of the country.

It’s a compelling case that was brilliantly summed up by the aforementioned Diana Johnson when she evoked the spirit of President John F Kennedy at the end of her Commons speech and said: “As a northern MP, I am not asking what this country can do for the North; I am asking what the North can do for this country. It is time that 
the Transport Secretary and the Department for Transport also asked themselves that question.”

That’s if they care – and actually understand the crucial connection between transport, infrastructure investment, economic growth and aspiration. Over to you Chris Grayling. An answer before the last Pacer is taken out of service would be a start.