Chris Grayling has been branded a “chicken” for pulling out of a railway conference addressing the travel chaos that has gripped the north in recent weeks.
The transport secretary had been due to speak to the Northern Transport Summit in Manchester on Monday, but he cancelled his appearance in order to be in London for the crunch vote on a third runway at Heathrow.
Mick Cash, the general secretary of the RMT union, said Grayling was “running scared”.
“He’s scared of the passengers he’s hung out to dry and he’s scared of the staff whose safety-critical jobs his franchise shambles have left facing the axe,” he said.
“Chris Grayling may have chickened out of meeting RMT members and their supporters today but I’ve got a message for him - you can run but you can’t hide.”
The union tweeted a photo of a man dressed as a chicken wearing a Grayling mask outside the event.
The RMT is embroiled in disputes with five train operators over the role of guards on trains, which have sparked a series of strikes over the past two years.
A Department for Transport spokesman said: “The secretary of state is not attending the summit as he is in London for the National Policy Statement in Parliament, a hugely significant vote that will benefit the whole country, including the North West.
“We recognise the importance of this event, which is why Transport Minister Baroness Sugg will therefore be attending.”
The transport summit runs from 8.30am until 16.30pm on Monday. The Commons vote on expanding Heathrow is not expected to take place until 10pm.
Andy Burnham, the Labour mayor of Manchester, also hit out at Grayling for ditching the summit. “When the government promised us a Northern Powerhouse, people took that as a clear sign that, at long last, the North was moving to the front of the queue for transport investment,” he said.
“But the government’s failure to stop the recent chaos on our railways, and the Transport Secretary’s disappointing decision to pull out of today’s Northern Transport Summit, suggests that their focus has drifted southwards once again.”
And Labour’s shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald said the “rail mayhem” was caused by Grayling.
“Passengers across the country are right to be angry at the way he has handled the latest in a long run of rail fiascos. Chris Grayling has lost all credibility and it’s time for him to go,” he said.
Grayling refused to deny suggestions he had considered resigning over the state of the railways when asked by BBC Radio 4′s Today programe.
But he denied he was responsible for the botched introduction of new railway timetables. “Actually no, I don’t run the railways,” he said.