THE truth can finally be revealed about how Transport Secretary Chris Grayling misled this newspaper and the region’s commuters during last year’s election campaign.
Exactly one year ago, Mr Grayling stood on a windswept station platform at Wakefield and appeared to reject suggestions that the planned electrification of the Midland Mainline was under threat. “We’ve made promises and we endeavour to keep our promises,” he told The Yorkshire Post in May 2017.
Now the National Audit Office reveals that Mr Grayling must already have known that the decision had been taken to cancel this upgrade – and other schemes – in March 2017 but still chose to utter his now – and then, it transpires – meaningless reassurances.
Even Prime Minister Theresa May was indirectly involved: the watchdog makes clear that, at the time, she asked for further details about the consequences of downgrading a scheme between Cardiff and Swansea.
Yet, in a political week that began with Amber Rudd resigning as Home Secretary over the Windrush scandal after deceiving MPs over immigration targets, Mr Grayling should have the decency to do likewise.
Misleading the media – the watchdog on behalf of the people – is just as disgraceful as misleading MPs. Furthermore, such behaviour only serves to reduce public trust in this Government, and, in fairness, all politicians. If he remains in office, it gives succour to those Ministers who think they’re unaccountable and don’t need to uphold the highest standards.
Predictably, there’s not even the hint of an apology from the Secretary of State or any words of regret from the Department for Transport. Instead, a blithe defence of the indefensible to add to the litany of snubs that this region has endured since the Minister’s appointment in July 2016.
Like you, I despair and had expected better of Mrs May’s government.
The background is this: this newspaper was already being quizzical of transport policy after David Cameron and George Osborne’s promises to electrify the region’s railways prior to the 2015 election stalled after polling day.
When Mr Grayling visited Yorkshire on May 8 last year, upgrades of the Midland Mainline and trans-Pennine routes were already behind schedule following a review, and a plan to upgrade the Selby to Hull line was dropped. No worries, he seemed to declare. “We are aware that people have expectations. We have no intention of suddenly throwing away all the commitments we have made,” Mr Grayling maintained. “The reality is that we’ve made promises and we endeavour to keep our promises.”
There were no caveats – just the a favourable impression that electrification was still going ahead.
Yet this newspaper was already sceptical. The following day’s Editorial, headlined ‘Track record of the Tories’, questioned the veracity of Government commitments and challenged Mr Grayling to answer this question: “When will the North’s major towns and cities have peak-time services to rival London and the South East?” It concluded: “They’re not unreasonable questions to ask during an election.”
Since then, he has not provided satisfactory answers and, on multiple occasions, his disregard for the North has been self-evident as he’s advanced the case for a second Crossrail scheme in London. And any pretence that he’s on the side of this region is laid bare by the NAO which reveals how the cancellation of three electrification schemes, including the Midland Mainline scheme from Sheffield to London, were part of a £1.8bn package of savings put by the Department of Transport to Chancellor Philip Hammond in February last year.
There was no suggestion he stood up for this region’s passengers – and his assurances to them. “The Department needed agreement from the Prime Minister and HM Treasury to cancel the Midland Main Line and Cardiff to Swansea sections,” says the report.
“In March 2017 Ministers agreed to cancel the Midland Mainline north of Kettering, and Oxenholme to Windermere electrification projects, but did not announce their decision until July.
“The Prime Minister asked the Department to complete an updated assessment on the likely savings and benefits of the Cardiff to Swansea project before she decided whether to cancel it or not.”
Asked if Mr Grayling had been less than frank when he spoke to The Yorkshire Post last May, officials simply dodged the question this week and provided what amounts to little more than the DfT’s standard ‘cut and paste’ response to all media queries.
“We are investing in the biggest modernisation of our railways since the Victorian era, spending billions of pounds across the country to deliver faster, more frequent, and more comfortable services with more seats,” said Mr Grayling’s spokeswoman.
“As the National Audit Office report makes clear, we are focused on delivering better trains and services to passengers more quickly, at better value for money for the taxpayer, without the significant disruption to services that electrification can cause.”
Challenged a second time to explain the discrespancy between Mr Grayling’s comments 12 months ago and the NAO report, she said no announcement was made until “a final decision had been taken”. She added: “As the NAO report sets out, we continued to examine the projects until that final decision. We have made clear that all schemes will be subject to on-going assessment of value for money and passenger benefits.”
This latter point is referring to the continuing controversy over Mr Grayling’s proposed bi-modal trains that have been fiercely criticised by Parliament’s Transport Select Committee amongst others and which won’t actually lead to any reductions in journey times – the original objective. It’s proving to be just as contentious as this central issue of trust.
This matters because Chris Grayling, who ran Mrs May’s leadership campaign in 2016, is still the final arbiter of road and rail policy in this region. The Government might have created Transport for the North – but it does not enjoy the autonomy afforded to its London equivalent.
He’s repeatedly betrayed this region and few believed – even before these latest revelations – that he was capable of getting transport policy on track and giving the North the world-class railway service that it needs. The longer he stays in office, the more it says about how the Prime Minister’s poor political judgement is failing the North.