A Labour MP has accused ministers of withholding information from Parliament about plans to cut rail services, following the disclosure of emails showing Department for Transport (DfT) officials recommending a ‘cynical’ handling strategy.
In response, the DfT stated that the documents were nothing to do with the current timetabling chaos being ‘endured’ by train operator Northern.
Dating back to 2015, the emails discuss plans to cut direct services from Southport to Manchester Piccadilly, which officials realised was a ‘pretty much inevitable consequence’ of the DfT’s specification for the franchise and a shortage of ‘paths’ for trains.
In one email, a DfT official suggests ‘a classic handling strategy'.
'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’.
The official signed the email: ‘Yours cynically’.
In another email an official wrote: ‘So [Southport] to Leeds is not really a 'valued' connection from an evaluation point of view, but my conclusion was that on balance we should contract it basically as a sop to [Southport], at a time when they will be losing their Piccdilly/Airport link.’
Despite the long-standing plans to cut the direct service from Southport to Manchester Piccadilly, rail minister Joe Johnson wrote to Wigan MP Lisa Nandy in February this year, stating that ‘peak services to Manchester Piccadilly will still go ahead as planned’.
He added: ‘My officials are working closely with Northern to assess the scope for additional services to Manchester Piccadilly as soon as possible.’
The emails were released under the Freedom of Information Act and raised by Ms Nandy at Prime Minister’s Questions.
She asked: ‘Will the Prime Minister explain to the House why she has withheld this key information from us and from the public? Or is she so incompetent that she literally does not have a clue what is going on in her own Government?’
However in response Theresa May incorrectly stated that Ms Nandy described the documents as ‘having been leaked from the Department for Transport’. She added: ‘No Government responds from the Dispatch Box to leaked documents they have not seen.’
A DfT spokesperson said: ‘These emails are nothing to do with the current timetabling issues being endured by Northern.
‘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. The excerpts quoted relate solely to a decision over whether trains from Southport would stop at Manchester Piccadilly or Manchester Victoria and have no further implications beyond that individual route.
‘It is deeply regrettable that a DfT official used inappropriate language and that matter is being looked at.’