Tom Richmond: Transport shambles offers further proof that North needs a Cabinet big-hitter

THE ongoing shambles on the North's rail network '“ highlighted by an unprecedented collaboration by the region's newspapers this week '“ re-enforces my view that the Northern Powerhouse Minister should be a Cabinet-level post.

For, while Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland each have their own Secretary of State despite the devolution of powers, the North is still left without a voice at the top table of the Government to provide a policy focus and make sure this region is not forgotten.

And, while Jake Berry is the current Northern Powerhouse Minister and part of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government team, I’m not convinced he has the necessary political stature.

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Even though his Lancashire constituency has been badly hit by the collapse of Northern Rail services, he said very little on the subject this week other than a mealy-mouthed acknowledgment that the issue is a “priority”.

What has Northern Powerhouse Minister Jake Berry been doing over the rail crisis?What has Northern Powerhouse Minister Jake Berry been doing over the rail crisis?
What has Northern Powerhouse Minister Jake Berry been doing over the rail crisis?

What’s he been doing? His Ministerial colleague Rishi Sunak let slip recently that Mr Berry’s remit also included high streets. Yet he did not respond for the Government in Wednesday’s debate in the Commons on the retail sector.

I can only conclude that Mr Berry clearly does not have the respect of Theresa May. If he did, the Prime Minister could have entrusted him with co-ordinating the Government’s response to the rail shambles. Instead I suspect he, too, has been asleep at the wheel just like Transport Secretary Chris Grayling.

It’s why Mrs May – and her chief whip Julian Smith – should be aware that people will vote with their season tickets at the next election unless Ministers get a grip now, spell out some specifics over the North’s railways and appoint a political big-hitter, in the mould of Tory grandee Michael Heseltine, to the post of Northern Powerhouse Secretary to bang heads together and reiterate the link between transport and the economy.

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I’M happy to repeat – and endorse – the challenge set by Don Valley MP Caroline Flint when Transport Secretary Chris Grayling was harangued by MPs from all parties over the collapse of rail services.

After Mr Grayling blamed everyone bar himself for his fiasco, and claimed that his officials at the Department for Transport, were not forewarned about difficulties emanating from changes to the timetable, she made this very pertinent point “in the interests of transparency”.

“Would he be prepared to publish any recorded letters, memos or emails that show that his Department was asking the right questions at the right time, so that we can see what answers he and his Department were given?” she asked.

Mr Grayling’s reply? “I am prepared to be completely transparent...I am aware of nothing that I would want to be kept hidden.”

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Let Northern Rail passengers be the judge, Secretary of State, and release the documents in full. Now.

THIS is why Chris Grayling is known as Macavity. The Transport Secretary’s assistant, James Heappey, emailed MPs at 10.09am last Friday inviting them to attending meetings with the Cabinet Minister, or his deputy Jo Johnson, between 6-7.30pm on Monday.

Mr Heappey then had to write to MPs on Monday to say the meetings were oversubscribed and Mr Grayling would have to make a Commons statement, another eventuality that the DfT should have foreseen. He suggested that they attended meetings in groups, but did warn: “I might not be able to give you exactly what you want.”

Just like the trains.

JO JOHNSON, deputy to Chris ‘don’t blame me’ Grayling, has confirmed Northern Rail submitted its proposed timetable in August 2017.

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He says Network Rail agreed it in November 2017, but that it became clear in January that associated engineering work would not be complete on time.

Instead of trains being cancelled, why did Mr Grayling not postpone the timetable? The buck stops with him.

NO wonder Northern Rail can’t run the trains. When I asked Press Officer A on Sunday how it intended to recompense passengers, he told me to call Press Officer B who, in turn, told me to call Press Officer C the following day. I left a message and am still waiting for the call back.

It’s symptomatic of the failing operator – they hope passengers will go away. They won’t. And, having written the joint editorial published by newspapers across the North this week, the media won’t be going away until the trains do run on time and there’s real reform.

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BARNSLEY poet Ian McMillan wants the name ‘Northern’ dropped from the region’s troubled rail operator. “The word Northern should be a byword for creativity, forward thinking, independence and seizing the day. Northern Rail are making it mean catastrophic failure,” he says. Agreed.

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