Though Mrs May appeared taken by surprise, she should not have been. Over 11,000 trains on the crisis-hit Northern rail network have been either cancelled, or delayed for more than 30 minutes, since a new timetable was introduced last month – and the misery is due to last until at least November.
And while the more incriminating emails from Department for Transport officials about “valueless” services in the North do, in fairness, precede Mr Grayling’s appointment in July 2016, the incendiary intervention by Ms Nandy, the MP for Wigan, confirms that Ministers were forewarned about the disruption and did not act.
For this, Mr Grayling must take full responsibility. The buck stops with him. Not only did he, and his team, fail to properly challenge rail chiefs, but he’s done little to change the DfT’s contemptible and complacent culture when it comes to the North.
No wonder transport investment – and rail services – lag behind London and the South East by such an extent when Ministers and officials dismiss key routes as ‘valueless’, discuss ‘classic handling strategies’ to persuade MPs – and passenger groups – to toe the line and consider propagating route closure myths to divert attention.
Valueless? Perhaps all those behind this crass correspondence would explain this to passengers such as those who met with Batley & Spen MP Tracy Brabin. In Tuesday’s no confidence debate, which Mr Grayling survived by 305-285 votes, she cited a commuter called Rachael “who was forced to spend her journey standing in the toilet with six other commuters, as there was no space anywhere else.
“She told me that, as late as this week, her regular service left people on the platform, without opening its doors, as it was too full by the time it arrived in Batley. Seventy people were left waiting over 70 minutes for the next train,” added Ms Brabin.
This is the sorry state of the region’s railways at present and the Department for Transport’s refusal to comment on Ms Nandy’s revelations speaks volumes. It appears to have learned nothing from 15 years ago when Jo Moore, an aide to Stephen Byers, the then Transport Secretary, suggested the 9/11 terrorist outrage was ‘a good day to bury bad news’.
And, despite Mrs May telling last year’s Tory conference that she remains committed to the Northern Powerhouse, mounting evidence suggests otherwise – she’s still to respond to the unprecedented joint One North editorial published by The Yorkshire Post, and newspapers across the region, on June 12 calling for immediate action to ease the daily disruption.
If Transport for the North had the necessary powers, the prevailing attitude revealed in these emails would not be tolerated.
Unless there is change at the top of DfT, starting with Mr Grayling’s replacement and the full disclosure of all documents over Northern rail, this region will have no confidence in the DfT – and Mrs May will continue to embarrassed by this issue.
After all, if some of this area’s rail routes are dismissed as ‘valueless’ in documents made public, what have officials – and Ministers – been saying in private? Nothing less than total transparency will now suffice.