Tom Richmond: Network Rail’s platform snub rivals Chris Grayling for contempt of the North

New trains on the Wharfedale and Airedale lines will be too long for station platforms.
New trains on the Wharfedale and Airedale lines will be too long for station platforms.
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IT is clear Network Rail has been taking additional lessons from Transport Secretary Chris Grayling over how best to insult Yorkshire rail commuters and abdicate their public service responsibilities.

This much is abundantly obvious from their point-blank refusal to answer a Freedom of Information request after this column revealed last month that new trains being brought into service on two routes will, in fact, be too long for many of the station platforms.

Given that the Wharfedale and Airedale lines are two of the busiest in the North as they shuttle commuters between Leeds, Ilkley, Skipton and all stations in between, The Yorkshire Post – suspicious that the North was being snubbed again – asked how many platforms had been extended over the past five years, and for a regional breakdown and the cost.

A not unreasonable request, given the public and political focus on the North’s rail shambles that has been exacerbated, in part, by Network Rail’s failure to complete urgent improvements before new timetables were introduced in May with such chaotic consequences.

Not so. In refusing, it cites occasions “when a public authority is allowed to refuse a request for information on the basis that the time that would need to be spent gathering and reviewing the information would be so great that it would create a ‘disproportionate burden’ on that organisation”.

This is totally spurious. Either Network Rail hasn’t kept proper records of station improvements; is embarrassed by the disproportionate amount of money being spent in London and the South East – or can’t be bothered.

Going on to confirm that 10 platform extension projects have taken place in the South East in the past five years before giving up on collating the necessary information, it says it would take between “two and four hours” to work out the cost breakdown for each individual scheme and it cannot justify this expenditure.

Really? This from an organisation which paid outgoing chief executive Mark Carne – awarded a CBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list – £769,000 in 2017/18. Five times the salary of Prime Minister Theresa May, this appears to be the ultimate reward for failure.

And then Network Rail has the temerity to say that it is “an open and transparent organisation”. Try telling this to those passengers – and campaigners – who have genuine safety fears after it emerged that platforms would not be extended at most commuter stations serving West Yorkshire to accommodate the new trains.

An understandable inconvenience on rural branch lines with lower usage, here passengers will have to fight their way through overcrowded carriages until they reach a point where they can get off their train safely. I suggest Network Rail thinks again about its decision not to go ahead with improvement work.

This also reaffirms my previous calls for there to be total transparency over spending. Given the Transport Select Committee confirmed last week that the North continues to be under-funded, and that it was erroneous of Mr Grayling to suggest otherwise, there needs to be a full annual audit – by an independent body – to show where money is being spent.

If the Government is genuinely committed to the Northern Powerhouse, and winning back the confidence and trust of passengers, it will do so without delay. The problem is getting Mr Grayling to act when the Transport Secretary maintains that he’s not responsible for running the railways. Little wonder, therefore, that organisations like Network Rail think they’re exempt from scrutiny and can take passengers for a ride.

A FORMER Tory MP has offered a plausible explanation for Chris Grayling’s continuing presence at the Department for Transport.

They suggest that Theresa May does not want to lose any Leave-supporting Cabinet-rank ministers in case her three Brexiteers – Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox – resign en masse and the Prime Minister needs to promote some ‘experienced’ politicians in their place.

It’s no way to run the country.

THERESA May did bring herself to mention the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ at PMQs this week. “More investment in our public transport; more investment in our roads; and more investment in the infrastructure that brings jobs to people in the North...” she said.

Why then, Mrs May, is the pre-election plan to electrify the line between Leeds and Manchester now the latest project in these parts to be scaled back by Chris Grayling? Do tell.

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“The trouble with a response such as ‘f**k business’ is that it captures, very succinctly, everything about that person and the beliefs they have,” she said before suggesting that the Foreign Secretary’s language was more akin to the Marxist John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor.

FOR its Today At Wimbledon evening highlights programme, the BBC has chosen to adorn a table with a glass bowl full of tennis balls. There’s no need for such props when viewers simply want to watch the action – and listen to pundits like John McEnroe as they put know-all presenter Clare Balding in her place.

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tom.richmond@ypn.co.uk

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