We need a competent transport secretary. We’ve got Chris Grayling

Will nothing derail Chris Grayling?

The transport secretary has long presided over a shambles of a public service and now stands accused by the cross-party transport select committee of failing to take proper responsibility for the rail timetabling crisis that turned so many lives upside down earlier this year. Children missed school lessons, adults feared for their jobs and livelihoods because they couldn’t get to work on time, furious passengers were forced to fork out for taxis and emergency childcare. If this were France, we’d probably be manning the barricades by now, not tweeting crossly about the 7.37 being delayed yet again.

Yet still Chris Grayling steams on, chuffing merrily on the BBC’s Today programme about how he and his department probably should have asked tougher questions of the rail operators now you come to mention it but – well, they didn’t, and here we are. Here he still is. The railways in their heyday were a symbol of ingenuity and progress but increasingly they’ve just come to embody all the embarrassingly basic things Britain can’t seem to do properly any more.

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In any normal period of political life Grayling would probably have been reshuffled by now, driven out if nothing else by fellow Tory MPs in commuter seats who fear an electoral backlash. But the man with the reverse Midas touch is safe so long as Brexit drains all Westminster’s energy and attention. Not only is he one of the few prominent leavers who hasn’t resigned yet, and therefore almost untouchable, but there is a more pressing omnishambles occupying the front pages. When the history of Brexit comes to be written, all the intractable but still solvable problems that didn’t get sorted because the entire political system was convulsed by one impossible fantasy should loom large. But that’s no consolation to anyone standing on an overcrowded platform right now.

In fairness to Grayling, it’s not all his fault. The select committee report makes it clear that the timetable debacle back in May was a “complex system-wide failure” for which Network Rail, train operators, regulators and the department must all share responsibility and which was driven by different factors in different parts of the country. Grayling was ultimately the only person with the power to halt the timetable changes but the report makes it clear that he wasn’t given the information he would have needed to do so, while arguing that he should have tried harder to ferret that information out. It is the train companies who swore they were ready to cope (when they so palpably weren’t) who have so far borne the brunt of the pitifully limited punishment dished out, with Grayling announcing yesterday that Govia Thameslink will keep its franchise but won’t be able to take a profit this year.

But it’s the transport secretary who perches on top of a teetering, crazily fragmented pile of rail bodies and ultimately the buck stops with him. The lesson learned painfully in so many departments of state over the last couple of decades is that farming politically sensitive decisions – whether it’s the rationing of new drugs on the NHS or the management of changes to the benefit system – out to arm’s length quangos or third sector providers works only until something goes horribly wrong and voters demand to know how their elected representatives are going to fix it. Accountability sticks to politicians, even sometimes when the power to do anything much about it has been devolved away. The choice facing all ministers in public service departments is either to get a grip on the system as it is, ensuring that at the very least they pick up on early signs of trouble and have levers to pull in case of emergency, or to declare the system not fit for purpose.

Too late, Grayling hints that he ought to have done the latter, arguing that the rail network has grown too big and too busy to be managed as it currently is (although he’s still staunchly against renationalisation). The snag is that given his track record, the prospect of Grayling embarking on a hugely complex reform with far-reaching consequences for people’s lives at a time when Downing Street is too overstretched to supervise closely is probably more alarming than the prospect of Grayling doing nothing. It would be Andrew Lansley’s NHS reforms with bells on.

What’s needed is a competent, politically canny new transport secretary given the freedom to think again, ideally in a government with time to focus on ordinary lives rather than interminable constitutional wrangling. Instead, what we’re likely to get for the foreseeable future is more Chris Grayling. See you on the replacement bus, then.

Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist

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