MACAVITY strikes again. If you’re stuck on a freezing station platform pondering the mysteries of the railways while wondering if your clapped-out morning train will ever arrive, there is another excuse when it is late – Brexit.
Who says so? None other than Chris Grayling, the very same Transport Secretary long mocked for Macavity-like tendencies because of a reluctance to accept any responsibility for his many mishaps. Asked why he’s so unpopular, he replied blithely: “I’m a lightning rod for the anti-Brexit brigade.”
Sorry, what’s Brexit to do with the trains? This excuse – extraordinary by Mr Grayling’s standards – came in an interview with the PoliticsHome website in which he also claimed that his lack of popularity can be attributed to a campaign by the RMT union to oppose his modernisation plans.
And not one word for those commuters who have held him in contempt for so long – or Tory activists. In the latest ConservativeHome survey, Mr Grayling had a net satisfaction rating of minus 45.3 per cent. Only Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, fared worse.
However Mr Grayling is not going anywhere soon. “I’m going to do what I think is right,” he added before saying that he is “not afraid of making big and sometimes unpopular calls”.
To explain Mr Grayling’s implausibility requires a journey back in time – just like the embarrassing Pacer trains that are still in service here. Prior to the 2010 General Election, he was the Shadow Home Secretary.
Yet, in one of David Cameron’s first big calls as Prime Minister, he appointed a hitherto low-profile Theresa May – the irony? – as Home Secretary and demoted Mr Grayling to the post of Employment Minister. Why? Mr Grayling then became Justice Secretary two years later.
Given the subsequent dismantling of probation services, his leadership failings were self-evident before the UK voted to leave the EU in June 2016. And his mismanagement of the railways was apparent long before last May’s disastrous timetable changes – the final insult for many – and Tory convulsions over Brexit.
From prioritising Crossrail to scrapping rail electrification schemes promised in the 2017 election and an inability to hold train operators to account, all the daily excuses trotted out to commuters have nothing to do with Brexit and everything to do with a Department for Transport which has ignored the North for too long.
And this matters because the feebleness of Mr Grayling’s latest obfuscation emerged on the same day as Transport for the North launched an ambitious £70bn vision to transform the region’s road and rail network over the next 30 years.
Even though TfN leaders hope work can begin on Northern Powerhouse Rail, a scheme to reduce journey times between the region’s major cities, within five years, public reaction was so sceptical that it needs to be taken on board.
They saw straight through all TfN’s unhelpful jargon and pointed out, quite rightly, that nothing will happen until the Government gives the agency full financial and policy-making powers.
Yet Mr Grayling – the Minister who thinks he can do no wrong – will not accede to this. And, at the same time, passengers actually want to see some tangible improvements to services now as fares, and overcrowding, go up.
It was summed up by an email from Sheffield transport campaigner Richard Morton whose efforts to get a modest ticket machine which functions in all weathers at Dore and Totley Station remain on hold – like so many rail improvement plans. His own experience at the end of last week, as Mr Grayling blustered, spoke volumes. “As I was travelling up the beautiful Esk valley line on a ghastly Pacer unit, it occurred to me that passengers are being substantially defrauded whenever they travel on one of these gruesome apologies for a train,” he said.
“It shook, rattled and rolled as they all do. Thus a suggestion: Northern should only be permitted to charge half fares on trains operated by these hideous, antiquated wrecks! On a train to York from Sheffield via Pontefract Baghill last week, we had a grubby Pacer without heat – an even less desirable experience.”
And he was not alone. Mark Davis, an exasperated commuter, summed it up when he tweeted: “Agreed. ‘We’ll have this sorted for you in 30 years’ is sadly the kind of window @northernassist mean when they announce another delayed service! Love the ambition of @Transport4North, and it urgently needs sorting out, but that timeframe is just demoralising.”
What happens next? As Transport for the North board members meet on Thursday – trains permitting – they need to harness the support of commuters. Despite its sound intentions, the organisation risks becoming too remote – and insular – for its own good.
And, while TfN will not demand Chris Grayling’s resignation, it should not preclude Yorkshire MPs from pressing for him “to do the right thing”. For, even though the Government is so sidetracked by Britain’s exit from the EU, one of the greatest mysteries of all is why the Transport Secretary is still at the controls, and having the audacity to blame Brexit. Even TS Eliot’s mystery cat Macavity was never this shameless or brazen, was he?