Transport Secretary Chris Grayling has come under fire after it emerged he was on a visit to Qatar on the same day millions of Britons faced inflation-busting rail rises.
Labour said Grayling had ‘gone into hiding’ as Downing Street revealed that the minister was in the Gulf state to meet its Prime Minister, finance and transport ministers and the CEOs of Qatar Investment Authority and Qatar Airways.
Back in the UK, average rail ticket prices rose by 3.4% - the biggest increase to fares since 2013 - and the hike first began to bite on Tuesday as many returned to work after the Christmas break.
Protests were staged at around 40 stations, with many commuters seeing their season tickets go up by more than £100. Research by the TUC also found UK passengers spent five times as much as rail travellers in other EU countries.
No.10 said “we understand people’s concerns about increases in rail fares and the cost of living” and stressed that it kept “under review” the rises and their relation to average earnings.
Following the backlash, Grayling was later forced to ring radio station LBC, down a crackly phone line from Doha.
He admitted fares were “higher than I would wish” and revealed he wanted to move to better measure of inflation to cut prices.
The minister also stressed he was in Qatar to drum up trade for post-Brexit Britain.
“I don’t think I’ve shirked the issue, but I think it’s really important we get out and try and win business for Britain,” Grayling said.
“Today, my presence in the country doesn’t make any difference - I can make a difference trying to help Britain get more jobs.”
Asked by ITV News if he had flown Business Class to Qatar, Grayling later said: “My job is to win business for Britain...I’m not going to get into travel arrangements.”
Earlier, not a single UK transport minister was available to defend the fare hikes on the media and Downing Street faced a swift reaction when it announced Grayling was on a two-day trip to sunny Qatar, to be followed by another trip to Turkey.
Asked if Theresa May felt it was ‘appropriate’ for the Transport Secretary to be out of the country on the day many people were hit by the fare hikes, her spokesman replied: “The fare rises we have known were coming for a while.”
Shadow Transport Secretary Andy McDonald seized on that admission that ministers had known precisely when to be in the country - or out of it.
He told HuffPost UK: “Passengers won’t appreciate the fact that Chris Grayling is sunning himself in Qatar while passengers are suffering inflation busting fares, broken down trains and freezing conditions.
“The Secretary of State for Transport’s failure to publicly explain to rail passengers why they are being hit with crushing fare increases today smacks of a man running scared.
“Chris Grayling won’t defend his multi-million pound bailout of Stagecoach on the East Coast line because he can’t. Passengers and taxpayers deserve better than a failing Transport Secretary who refuses to defend his track record.”
But a Government source said: “It’s a business trip, not a holiday.”
Grayling is already under heavy fire amid claims that the taxpayer is footing the bill for a £2bn ‘bail out’ of a Stagecoach-Virgin contract that will end earlier than expected on the London-Edinburgh line.
Vince Cable, Leader of the Liberal Democrats, said: “Rail passengers are shivering on platforms angered by the biggest fare increase in years while Chris Grayling is off globetrotting.
“It’s very difficult to see what useful function he can perform in Qatar and Turkey that our excellent trade officials could not.”
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman moved to dismiss speculation that Grayling would be fired in the Cabinet reshuffle expected next week.
Asked if the PM had confidence in him, the spokesman replied: “Chris Grayling is working hard and doing a good job as Transport Secretary.”
Downing Street ducked questions as to whether the trip was related to Brexit, though the Department for Transport later said the visit was a chance to “promote the UK overseas”.
“There are ministers visiting a whole host of countries spreading the message that Britain is a very good place to invest and to do business in. Chris Grayling obviously plays an important part in that,” the PM’s spokesman said.
No.10 said that the private rail companies had been leading the response on the fare hikes but stressed that ministers were listening to the public
“The Government carefully monitors how rail fares and average earnings changes and keeps the way fare levels are calculated under review,” the spokesman added.
Meanwhile, Labour frontbencher McDonald was stranded with other passengers on a Virgin train on the troubled East Coast rail line - just outside Grantham in Lincolnshire.
Mick Cash, the general secretary of the RMT rail union, said: “Chris Grayling knew that the fares story would be top of the news agenda today but instead of being available to defend his government’s great rail rip-off he booked himself a trip to the Qatari sunshine”
The PM’s spokesman said: “The Secretary of State for Transport is currently on his way to Qatar for a two-day visit.
“The fare rises we have known were coming for a while and the Department for Transport has issued a full statement responding to those rises.”
He added that 97p of every pound spent on tickets was ploughed back into investment in the railways.
The spokesman flatly denied Labour claims that the East Coast rail franchise was a rip-off for the public, despite former National Infrastructure Commission chief Lord Adonis citing the deal as one reason for his resignation this week.
“Any suggestion that taxpayers will be out of pocket is wrong. No one is getting a bail-out”.
Asked to explain the timing and rationale behind Grayling’s visit to the Gulf state, a spokesperson for the Department for Transport said: “The Secretary of State is currently on a pre-planned visit to Qatar to promote the UK overseas, support British jobs and strengthen the important relationship between the two countries.
“This trip has been specifically arranged to take place outside of Parliamentary time. The Secretary of State has repeatedly answered questions on [the rail fare increase] ever since fare increases were first announced by the industry in August.”
The Department added that the trip would seek to build on the “close and growing trade and investment relationship” led by both Prime Ministers last year.
“As the UK prepares to leave the EU, we want to strengthen our commercial ties with partners around the world, creating new opportunities for British businesses. The Secretary of State’s visit to Qatar aims to strengthen our relationship for the future of both countries.
“The UK is also keen to share its private and public sector expertise and experience of security and transport management around major events.”
On his trip to Turkey, Grayling will be discussing “a number of issues” with its transport minister and “supporting potential major contracts in civil and defence aerospace”, the department added.