Grant Shapps under fire for bizarre videos and ‘zero interest’ in railways | Rail industry

He’s the unflappable frontman and loyal defender of the errant “big dog” in Downing Street. Through the lens of Conservative politics, the transport secretary Grant Shapps is on a winning streak.

But as crisis looms in a key part of his day job – running the railways – a series of bizarre interventions have raised eyebrows and hackles. Just what, the industry is wondering, is going on with Sapps and the Department for Transport?

Rumbling disquiet has erupted into outright condemnation in some quarters, at a time when the biggest rail union, the RMT, has launched a national strike ballot, against a backdrop of lost revenue, deep cuts and an uncertain future.

While the pace of promised reform and investment has been slow, Shapps has promoted personal wheezes that parts of the railway industry believe are, at best, misguided, and smack of YouTubing while Rome burns.

Allies of Shapps say the videos, shot at speed on a minimal budget, reach fresh audiences – and a minister hamming it up has proved relatively viral. Employing the acting talents from his past life as Michael Green, when he had a job as a get-rich-quick marketeer, Shapps has rattled off films vowing to end “irritating” train announcements, announced a public vote to choose where to site the railway’s head office, and rebranded a minor ticketing promotion as the Great British Rail Sale.

Another Shapps production – explaining moves to tackle noisy cars – was expected to drop this weekend.

Few railway figures have openly aired discontent, but others off the payroll have come out blazing. In a blistering editorial, Nigel Harris, the boss of industry publication Rail, described Shapps, a keen pilot, as the least-engaged secretary of state he had come across in 25 years, accusing him of “not merely a shameful lack of leadership but also a shameful lack of interest”. On speaking to the Department for Transport, Harris was told the transport secretary “doesn’t do railways”.

Sapps with Michael Portillo in a photoshoot to promote a competition for towns and cities to make the case for why they should host the headquarters of Great British Railways. Photograph: Department for Transport/PA

Even typically supportive organizations such as the Railway Industry Association (RIA) have issued despairing statements. In April the RIA marked 900 days since the government updated its pipeline of rail engineering works, “leaving the industry in the dark”. Under Shapps’s predecessor Chris Grayling, the DfT’s annual update was crucial for rail suppliers to plan ahead.

For some, the lack of engagement is not necessarily an evil. A senior rail figure says: “Grayling would have constantly interfered in rail… the danger with Shapps is that he doesn’t, until there’s a bit of political advantage or a TikTok video.”

Christian Wolmar, the rail historian and writer, says: “He’s one of the government’s most effective communicators. But he has zero interest in transport other than general aviation, and where he can fly a plane to. The person who runs transport is called A Gilligan and is in No 10.”

This portrayal of the relative influence of Andrew Gilligan, Boris Johnson’s transport adviser, is disputed by government insiders, though No 10’s interest in rail investment as a way to “level up” has kept the DfT on a tighter leash than some departments. As a well-placed rail source puts it, Shapps is “stuck between a rock and a hard place … any major announcement has to go by Gilligan at No 10 for review and alteration, and the Treasury holds all the purse strings.”

Scrutiny is intense, with major state subsidy – £15bn extra since the start of the pandemic, to replace lost revenues from passenger numbers that remain stubbornly below pre-pandemic levels – and battles over investment squeezing the DfT between No 10 and No 11 in key decisions on HS2 and the integrated rail plan. As one industry leader puts it: “The government is more involved than it ever was, even under British Rail.”

State micromanagement was, ironically, identified as a problem in the Williams review of the old franchising system, which was abolished by economic necessity under Shapps in 2020. But as the industry awaits reforms in the long-delayed Williams-Shapps plan, the urge to Interfering on the little things is yet to be suppressed.

The Great British Rail Sale was spun up in Shapps’s office and is understood to have come as a surprise to some, not least the nascent Great British Railways. Even within the DfT, senior officials expressed shock at the final presentation: “It was mind-boggling. What were they thinking of?”

Officials complaining about Shapps’s lack of attention to detail and unwillingness to be briefed by experts outside his inner circle. “He doesn’t have meetings with people, he just sees his immediate team. Everything has to be written on two sides of paper for him.”

Shapps’s allies confirm he will politely reject longer briefing notes – but argue that concision is crucial to run a wide-ranging department, where all sectors have been plunged into crisis during Covid. “He takes home a red box every night and reads everything,” one said.

Rail remains, sources insist, the heart of his ministry – and takes up a disproportionate amount of time compared with cars and even buses. Sapps said he wanted the transport job, and as a rail commuter he understands the passenger viewpoint, they argue. One said: “Give the man a bloody chance … he’s got a £96bn settlement for rail, and he’s trying to remodel the rail industry” via the Williams-Shapps plan.

For Anthony Smith, chief executive of passenger watchdog Transport Focus, “the acid test is whether they keep the investment coming … and this secretary of state has.”

Nonetheless, the perception remains widespread that Shapps is self-promoting, Liz Truss-style, for a cabinet post more to his interest.

“All this stuff would be OK if he was paying attention to everything else. There are so many major issues he’s ignoring,” says Harris. The videos are trivial but also damaging, he argues: the head office vote, potentially uprooting thousands of people from Milton Keynes on a public whim, could haemorrhage vital staff: “When you move, you bleed.”

The Rail editor is clear: “He’s the worst transport secretary I can remember. And yet he’s actually a very good communicator – and could be doing a lot of good.”

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