Transport Secretary Chris Grayling was today accused of "sinking to a new low" after The Yorkshire Post's revelation that he told rail chiefs not to go public about delays to a vital infrastructure scheme until after a Commons debate.
In an email obtained by this newspaper, a senior Department for Transport official told rail industry leaders in January last year that Mr Grayling did not want the delay to the electrification project in the North West to be made public until after the rail franchising debate led by Labour the following day.
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In the end, the news of the delay to the project - which ultimately led to the botched introduction of a timetable by rail operator Northern four months later, causing widespread chaos across the North - was not revealed publicly until the day after the Opposition Day debate.
TSSA General Secretary Manuel Cortes said: “This really is Failing Chris Grayling sinking to a new low and simply goes to show that the Conservatives are happy to put politics before the interests of the travelling public.
“This amounts to a cover up of how badly Failing Grayling’s mismanagement of our railways has been. He is the most incompetent Transport Secretary I have ever known and his disastrous stewardship knows no bounds.
“He’s not fit to run a bath and anyone with any decency would have resigned long ago. This debacle is just another clear signal that we need a public railway, owned by the public for the public and we need it now.”
Emails requested by The Yorkshire Post under the Freedom of Information Act show a discussion between senior rail officials on Tuesday, January 9 about the delay of the line upgrade between Preston and Manchester.
At 2.30pm Martin Frobisher, Network Rail's Route Managing Director in the North West, wrote in a message to his colleagues and other senior rail officials that the Department for Transport's head of communications had met with Mr Grayling.
He wrote: "The Secretary of State has asked that we get the announcement out as soon as possible. He doesn’t want a big press release or media event. He wants us to directly brief selected journalists. He wants us to control the story, rather than wait for a leak to the media."
Just before 6pm the same day, emails show the DfT's 'Director of Network Services, Rail', whose name is redacted, reply that officials agreed on Network Rail "leading on low key local communications".
They added: "The [Secretary of State] would prefer the announcement were sooner rather than later but not before the Opposition Day debate on Rail tomorrow afternoon / evening." They suggested the announcement was "best choreographed" for Thursday, January 11.
The following day, Wednesday January 10, saw a Commons debate about rail franchising, where no mention was made of the delay to the electrification scheme.
In the end, the electrification scheme was not completed until early this year.
As rail bosses later admitted, the delay led to the May 2018 timetable chaos as rail operator Northern was forced to rewrite its timetable at short notice.
Not enough drivers could be trained in time to deliver the new routes and as a consequence hundreds of scheduled Northern trains a day did not run. According to the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, the chaos cost businesses across the North more than £37m.
A Department for Transport spokeswoman said: “The Secretary of State asked for the announcement to be made as soon as possible.
“This was done as soon as appropriate clearances were in place - as is reasonable for an announcement of this type.”