Grayling gets it wrong on London rail devolution decision

Secretary of state for transport Chris Grayling's decision not to transfer the operation of suburban rail services to Transport for London is deeply disappointing, writes Peter Campbell.

The decision by Chris Grayling, secretary of state for transport, not to transfer the operation of suburban rail services to Transport for London (TfL) is perhaps one of the more surprising, and disappointing, decisions that we have seen this year. And that is saying a lot, given the way that 2016 has thrown us some unexpected curve balls! 

Ostensibly, Grayling said that his decision was down to the lack of any clear indication that passengers will see tangible benefits from the devolution of control to city hall. He also cited democratic accountability issues, stating: "If you live in Guildford where’s the democratic accountability? Why should the Mayor of London be responsible for a train from Guildford or Dorking?” 

This was all on the day that Grayling also announced a new approach to the work that Network Rail and the train operating companies do in maintaining our rail infrastructure. The restored east-west rail link between Oxford and Cambridge will be built, owned, operated, and maintained by one company in a trial that it is hoped can be rolled out across the network as franchises come up for renewal. 

On London, however, Grayling has, in the view of ACE, made a significant mistake. We have long called for the mayor’s office and TfL to be given further control over the rail network in London. This will give greater certainty for the infrastructure delivery companies, will allow for better planning and integration of services, and provide for more cost efficiencies through economies of scale. 

In addition, the reasons for denying the mayor the powers are also suspect. TfL already manages one London rail line in the overground, which it lets out to a private delivery contractor, while the DLR is also managed in a similar way. The overground regularly scores very highly in terms of passenger satisfaction and punctuality, demonstrating the tangible benefits that could be felt by consumers that Grayling thought lacking. 

Furthermore, his assertion about accountability, although a valid concern, is not one that does not already exist. The extremities of the Metropolitan Line, for instance, are in Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire. It is hard to recall there ever being concerns expressed by the denizens of Amersham or Watford that their views on the tube service were not being heard. 

It is also hard to see why Grayling is so keen for the Department for Transport to retain control over the franchises, when there are almost daily reports of strike action, timetable revisions, or passenger dissatisfaction. With the tribulations of Southern Rail looking set to continue for the time being at least, palming this off to the mayor might seem politically expedient. Grayling has chosen not to take this opportunity to be able to shift blame, however. 

A clue to the reason for this has been seen in the events following this decision, perhaps, with a letter emerging that Grayling (when he was justice secretary) wrote to former mayor Boris Johnson in 2013. The letter outlines the former’s support for devolution but expresses concern at handing that much power and responsibility to a future Labour mayor of London. 

This paints the decision in a very different light, putting a more politically partisan, overtly ideological spin on Grayling’s actions. In light of the question marks about his publicly stated motives outlined above, it is also easy to think that the secretary of state is being slightly disingenuous. That this letter has led to calls for Mr Grayling’s resignation from colleagues on his own benches, we have perhaps not seen the last of this! 

Peter Campbell is a senior policy manager at the Association for Consultancy and Engineering.