'Yours cynically': emails show DfT contempt for rail users, says MP

Frances Perraudin
A Northern train at Liverpool South Parkway station. Photograph: Martin Rickett/PA

Private emails sent between government officials after warnings of impending rail chaos in the north of England show “complete disrespect and contempt” for passengers, an MP has said.

Documents released after a freedom of information request to the Department for Transport, and passed to the Labour MP for Wigan, Lisa Nandy, show discussions between officials after passenger groups warned more than two years ago that planned changes to train routes would result in widespread disruption.

One email, from October 2015, suggested the line from Southport to Leeds was “not really a ‘valued’ connection” but should be kept as “a sop” to people in Southport as they were likely to lose their direct link to Manchester airport.

Another, from February 2016, made reference to “a classic handling strategy” that MPs could use. “Propagate the myth that the service is closing entirely, then people will rejoice at the news that it is merely being diverted to [Manchester] Victoria. Yours cynically,” it read.

Since Northern rail introduced a new timetable on 20 May there have been mass cancellations and delayed services on some of its lines. Northern, a subsidiary of Arriva, has blamed the disruption on delayed engineering works and a shortage of trained drivers.

Nandy said the correspondence revealed that while locals were being told their concerns over proposed changes were being listened to, privately the decisions had already been made.

“It paints a picture of a group of people sitting in London carving up our railways, with not only no regard for people’s lives but real disrespect and contempt for the people using the railways,” she said. “There is no regard shown at all for the lived experience of people in the north of England.”

Speaking at prime minister’s questions in the House of Commons on Wednesday, Nandy said: “Four weeks of Northern rail chaos – passengers in the north of England have had enough. The government has said Network Rail didn’t deliver and that Northern wasn’t prepared.

“But I have been handed emails from within the Department for Transport that show that ministers and officials were warned of impending chaos as long ago as two years ago. These emails are a disgrace.”

Theresa May said she would not comment on documents she had not seen. “Can I also say that in advance of the timetable changes that took place for both Northern and Govia in May there was a separate panel, an independent panel set up by the DfT, to reassure the [DfT] about the nature of those plans,” she said.

The timetable changes in May resulted in the cancellation of most of the direct services between Southport and Manchester Piccadilly and the airport. Nandy said she and local passenger groups had warned that the change would result in dangerous overcrowding at Salford Crescent station as people changed trains to get to south Manchester.

She received a letter from the transport minister Jo Johnson in February 2018 stating that “peak services to Manchester Piccadilly will still go ahead as planned”, but the emails reveal that the decision to cancel the services was seen as “pretty much inevitable” in as early as 2015.

“Diversion of the Southport to Victoria is a pretty much inevitable consequence of our specification,” read one email from that year. “Paths through the Oxford Road corridor are scarce and demand flows west of Wigan are materially weaker than other places that are getting new services through that corridor.”

A DfT spokesman said the emails had nothing to do with the timetabling issues experienced by Northern in recent weeks.

“The emails are more than two years old and relate to the wider design of the Northern franchise and deciding which trains were most needed to best serve the passengers in the region.”

They added: “It is deeply regrettable that a DfT official used inappropriate language and that matter is being looked at.”