Exclusive: Chris Grayling told transport chiefs not to reveal delays to vital rail scheme until after Commons debate with Labour MPs
Transport Secretary Chris Grayling asked rail officials to hold off making a public announcement about a delay to a vital infrastructure project until after a Commons debate where his department's record was scrutinised by MPs, The Yorkshire Post can reveal.
In an email obtained by this newspaper, a senior Department for Transport official told rail industry leaders in January last year that Mr Grayling did not want the delay to the electrification project in the North West to be made public until after the rail franchising debate led by Labour the following day.
In the end, the news of the delay to the project - which ultimately led to the botched introduction of a timetable by rail operator Northern four months later, causing widespread chaos across the North - was not revealed publicly until the day after the Opposition Day debate.
Labour's Shadow Transport Secretary Andy McDonald said: "We all knew of Chris Grayling’s disdain for Parliament but these emails reveal the depth of the Transport Secretary’s contempt for the House of Commons.
"Grayling denied MPs of all parties full information about delays to nationally significant rail upgrades ahead of an important Parliamentary debate on rail. Once again, he’s not being straight with either MPs or the public. Labour will be raising this matter in Parliament next week after the Easter recess."
Emails requested by The Yorkshire Post under the Freedom of Information Act show a discussion between senior rail officials on Tuesday, January 9 about the delay of the line upgrade between Preston and Manchester.
At 2.30pm Martin Frobisher, Network Rail's Route Managing Director in the North West, wrote in a message to his colleagues and other senior rail officials that the Department for Transport's head of communications had met with Mr Grayling.
He wrote: "The Secretary of State has asked that we get the announcement out as soon as possible. He doesn’t want a big press release or media event. He wants us to directly brief selected journalists. He wants us to control the story, rather than wait for a leak to the media."
Just before 6pm the same day, emails show the DfT's 'Director of Network Services, Rail', whose name is redacted, reply that officials agreed on Network Rail "leading on low key local communications".
They added: "The [Secretary of State] would prefer the announcement were sooner rather than later but not before the Opposition Day debate on Rail tomorrow afternoon / evening." They suggested the announcement was "best choreographed" for Thursday, January 11.
The following day, Wednesday January 10, saw a Commons debate about rail franchising, where no mention was made of the delay to the electrification scheme.
Labour's Andy McDonald told MPs at the time: "The entire rail debate is characterised by a lack of candour and transparency from both the Government and some quarters of the rail industry."
Defending his department's record, Mr Grayling told the Commons: "The biggest problem is that we have not had enough new trains or enough investment.
"That is why it is right and proper that this Government are spending more than any since the steam age on improving the infrastructure, and why new trains are being introduced right across the country."
On Thursday, January 11, local media in the North West reported Network Rail saying that "poor ground conditions" have delayed the completion date for the electrification project from May to Summer 2018.
The government agency said progress was hampered by unexpected running sand and hard rock in the vicinity of old uncharted shallow mine workings. In the end, the electrification scheme was not completed until early this year.
As rail bosses later admitted, the delay led to the May 2018 timetable chaos as rail operator Northern was forced to rewrite its timetable at short notice.
Not enough drivers could be trained in time to deliver the new routes and as a consequence hundreds of scheduled Northern trains a day did not run. According to the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, the chaos cost businesses across the North more than £37m.
A Department for Transport spokeswoman said: “The Secretary of State asked for the announcement to be made as soon as possible.
“This was done as soon as appropriate clearances were in place - as is reasonable for an announcement of this type.”