Labour has accused the government of deceiving the public over delays to the biggest overhaul of Britain’s railways after its decision to shelve vital upgrades to rail lines in England’s midlands and north.
Michael Dugher, shadow transport secretary, wrote to David Cameron to ask whether the prime minister was aware of Network Rail problems before polling day after the two electrification projects this week were postponed.
The decision to delay the electrification of the Midland main line and the TransPennine route between Leeds and Manchester comes just weeks after the Conservatives campaigned on creating a Northern Powerhouse — citing such projects as evidence of their commitment to rebalancing the economy.
Mr Dugher said there was “huge anger in many parts of the country at this betrayal of promises you repeatedly made during the election” as he suggested the government knew parts of the £38bn five-year investment plan were in “serious difficulty” ahead of the election.
“The public have a right to know whether they have been deceived and if members of the government knew for months that these projects would not be delivered as promised,” Mr Dugher wrote.
His intervention comes after Patrick McLoughlin, transport secretary, told MPs “unacceptable problems” at the infrastructure operator meant the projects would have to be “paused” and said Sir Peter Hendy, the head of London for Transport, would take over as chairman of Network Rail.
The delay is personally embarrassing for chancellor George Osborne, the architect and chief advocate of the government’s Northern Powerhouse programme to narrow the north-south divide.
The rail upgrades have been billed as part of that project with the Midland main line electrification described as something that would “put the Midlands at the centre of a modern, interconnected transport network for the UK”.
Meanwhile, the chancellor’s efforts to bring investment into the north through the shale gas industry also suffered a setback last week after councillors rejected an application to allowing fracking of four wells in Lancashire.
Another application for a second site was deferred until Monday after a heated debate at the county council last week, sparking concerns in the industry that the council might reject the application.
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, involves pumping water and chemicals under ground to fracture shale rock and release pockets of gas.
The drilling technique has been widely used in the US to unlock vast oil and gas reserves previously thought inaccessible and the British government is keen to press ahead with a drilling campaign despite opposition from environmental campaigners.
Political opponents argue Mr Osborne’s conversion to devolution ahead of the May election was a nakedly political attempt to show voters the Conservatives have an agenda to spread wealth outside the London region. But party figures also admit Mr Osborne has captured the political ground with his Northern Powerhouse project — and are keen to exploit any fractures in that narrative.
The government said on Friday it had asked Network Rail in March for a more accurate assessment of its cost and delivery schedule and said the extent of the problems had “only now become clear”.
Asked when he first heard of Network Rail’s difficulties, Mr Cameron told a press conference in Brussels: “The first substantive conversation I’ve had about this was with Patrick McLoughlin when he came to talk to me about the need to change the leadership of Network Rail and his plans for [Sir] Peter Hendy, who I think is an excellent choice.”