TRANSPORT Minister Jo Johnson’s refusal to answer Andy McDonald’s urgent question on suspected government plans to ditch Manchester-to-Leeds rail electrification speaks volumes.
Whatever Johnson’s waffle about awaiting consideration of a Network Rail report, the sound of paper being shredded indicates the plan has been dumped and with it any notion of the Northern Powerhouse on which former chancellor George Osborne constructed a Tory election promise.
This isn’t surprising, since we have seen a similar no-notice pledge dropped with the abandonment of the Swansea-to-Cardiff Great Western line.
McDonald’s reminder that Labour is committed to spending over £10 billion to build a Crossrail for the North, offering the exciting prospect of sending freight through the Pennines and connecting Liverpool, Teesport, Immingham and Hull docks illustrates different priorities for the main two parties.
Do the Tories regard these cities and their hinterland as an electoral desert for their candidates?
If so, the death knell for the Northern Powerhouse would reflect a similar attitude to the M4 corridor in south Wales, where failure to back Great Western electrification is exacerbated by the Tories’ decision to pull the plug on the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon.
The Transport Minister claims the government is committed to electrification “where it delivers passenger benefits and value for money.”
These are important considerations, but so is the environmental angle, which he fails even to mention.
It’s less than a decade since David Cameron was boasting that his government, including Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrat collaborators, would be the greenest ever.
But its Theresa May-led successor hacks back on rail electrification and green power generation in favour of a third runway at Heathrow — which, if it is ever built, will be an environmental disaster — and yet another expensive and uneconomic nuclear power station.
Transport Secretary Chris “Failing” Grayling has the unenviable distinction of being responsible both for the impending Heathrow fiasco and all avoidable catastrophes on our railways.
It is difficult to imagine how his stock could sink much lower, but he has managed it by allowing Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR), the crisis-struck shambles awarded nearly £9bn to run Thameslink, Great Northern, Southern and Gatwick Express rail services, to issue leaflets blaming him for its shortcomings.
According to GTR, the company has Grayling’s full and continuing support and, moreover, the cancellation and delays-hit services it offers are comfortably within the terms of its contract.
GTR has bought an advert in a free newspaper to “apologise sincerely” to passengers, but this is meaningless since its actions are governed by the drive for maximum profits rather than maximised passenger satisfaction.
Grayling’s minister Johnson has tried to take some of the pressure off the Transport Secretary, letting it be known that, if GTR is found to have been “negligent,” his boss could sack the company take its franchises into temporary short-term public ownership.
Who actually believes this, especially since the Tories have even privatised the previously successful Directly Operated Railways public company?
It’s a case of talking big to impress rail travellers, taxpayers and the electorate while doing nothing to interfere with the right of City boardroom suits to sit back and count the ill-gotten gains that investment in rail franchises brings them.
Even Tory MPs have to criticise GTR failings to mollify their constituents, but they won’t rock the private rail applecart.
They know that the only answer to Britain’s privatised railways chaos is public ownership on a permanent basis, but only Labour backs this call.
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