Overgrounded: How London’s Dream of Rail Devolution Died


There are those who believe that London’s local rail services would be better managed by TfL. For most of 2016 all the signs seemed to indicate that TfL would be invited to do just that. We look at the chain of events that led to this policy’s sudden reverse.

Taking control of more of London’s suburban railway network has long been a TfL goal. Until recently things certainly seemed to be moving in this direction, with plans for TfL’s primary national rail network subsidiary, London Overground, to take over much of London’s metro services.

Things had started off very well in January 2016 with a document, A new approach to rail passenger services in London and the South East, published jointly by the DfT and TfL. As if to emphasise the organisations’ unity of purpose, the document even began with a joint statement by then-London Mayor Boris Johnson, and the Secretary of State (SoS) for Transport, Patrick McLoughlin. The document put forward the case for more TfL control over London rail services. Over the following months it became clear that this wasn’t just intended to be a positioning paper. Indeed for most of 2016, all the signs indicated that TfL would be invited to take over Southeastern Metro services in 2018 when the existing franchise came to an end.

The Mayoral elections were due in May 2016 and Boris Johnson did not intend to run for a third term. It was clear that the two protagonists were aware of this and that it was by no means inevitable that the next Mayor would also be a Conservative, like both Johnson and McLoughlin. All the major political parties appeared to be in favour of TfL rail devolution though, so it seemed clear that this was a policy that was intended to be implemented regardless of who the new London Mayor would be.

Additional positive news for supporters of rail devolution was that the Secretary of State for Transport seemed well-settled in his job – a role notorious for having short-term ministers. More encouraging still was the fact that the Prime Minister, David Cameron, was known to intensely dislike cabinet reshuffles. As a result, Patrick McLoughlin seemed unlikely to be moved on from the DfT.

A new Mayor

In May 2016 Sadiq Khan was elected Mayor of London. Despite being a member of the Labour Party, early indications were that it was “business as usual,” with the new Mayor taking over much of his predecessor’s policies in the area of transport. This was hardly a surprise. So far the London mayoralty has had a habit of driving all its office holders somewhat to the political left, at least in terms of transport. Boris Johnson had thus taken over many of his Labour predecessor’s transport policies when he had assumed office, with only an obsession for getting rid of bendy-buses and introducing a modern variation of the Routemaster initially representing a major policy shift. Most notably, on being elected, Boris Johnson had quickly given his full support to the expansion of London Overground – a noted free-marketeer thus becoming an advocate for quasi-state intervention in this area at least.

The change of Mayor in May 2016 apparently did little to change plans for a Southeastern Metro takeover, despite requiring a Labour Mayor to work with a Conservative government.

Again here the presence of Patrick McLoughlin as Secretary of State for Transport no doubt helped. A pragmatist with a more than passing understanding of the problems facing Britain’s railways (historically not a trait that all occupants of the office have shared), McLoughlin had never seemed too encumbered by political idealism. It was he who appointed Sir Peter Hendy, then Commissioner of Transport in London, as Chairman of Network Rail. To say that Sir Peter isn’t known for his adherence to right-wing ideology would be something of an understatement. McLoughlin had clearly decided though that this didn’t matter – he was simply the best man for the job. Indeed a by-product of this appointment seemed to be near-guaranteed support from Network Rail for rail devolution to TfL of further rail services, for which Sir Peter had always been a fervent advocate as the organisation’s ostensible head.

As if all these signs weren’t positive enough, it even looked like one of the long term objections to further devolution had finally begun to weaken. Since the earliest days of London Overground, a frequently quoted issue had been that of TfL running services beyond the London border. Doing so, opponents to further devolution pointed out, would raise issues of accountability. For TfL would be running services in counties that had no direct ability to hold the organisation to political account. Indeed there had been particularly vocal opposition early on from some political figures within counties such as Kent in this regard.

As existing and new Overground services either continued to run well or improved, however, the number of voices making such arguments seemed to gradually diminish. Increasingly it seemed as if everyone knew that London knew it was not in its interests to short change those who journeyed into the capital from outside. A city that relies on connectivity and people working together was simply not going to adopt a parochial stance – or at least not one parochial enough that it would not be outweighed by the likely service improvements that seemed destined to follow.

Moreover, this only seemed to be an issue with taking over existing services. It was notable how much of a non-issue this was on Crossrail, for example. Certainly the MP for Maidenhead seemed uninclined to complain simply because a new railway directly benefitting her constituents was managed by the men and women from London.

The storm breaks

So, what then went wrong? In a word: Brexit.

One of the many consequences of Britain voting to leave the EU was the resignation of the Prime Minister, David Cameron. By mid-July 2016 Britain had a new leader, Theresa May. In the space of a few hours the old devolution certainties had disappeared, but with people understandably focused on much bigger issues for the country it is likely that few appreciated the subtle ripples emanating from Westminster that would usher in such a radical shift in the devolution direction.

Britain’s new Prime Minister was clearly determined to start afresh. In the process she undid many of the government’s former policies. She also needed to form a workable cabinet from a mix of those both for and against Brexit. So it was fairly inevitable that a major cabinet shake-up would take place. With the Prime Minister herself being quick to undo some of the policies of her predecessor, it also seemed likely that, in turn, the incoming ministers would feel less bound to continue the policies of their own predecessors – and rail devolution had very much been a product of Patrick McLoughlin’s tenure at the DfT rather than a long held departmental policy.

A new minister

On 14 July 2016, Chris Grayling (Epsom & Ewell) was appointed Secretary of State for Transport.

Dedicated followers of transport politics will know that before a new minister’s personal transport opinions are considered, one should quickly look at the constituency they represent. The appointment of Philip Hammond (Runnymede & Weybridge) to the post in 2010 for example, had arguably sounded the death knell for Heathrow Airtrack. The scheme was highly unpopular on a local level in places such as Egham, where it would have a negative impact on road travel. Egham, of course, was within Hammond’s constituency.

When it comes to Overground Expansion, it would be hard to think of a more problematic constituency than Epsom & Ewell for the Secretary of State to represent. For actions, it is said, have consequences which can sometimes take many years to fully manifest. So it is in Epsom & Ewell, thanks to events way back in 1965.

Working out where London ends

By the middle of the twentieth century, it had become clear that area officially covered by the then-London County Council (LCC) was rather smaller than it should logically be. The distinction between inner and outer London was disappearing, and London was becoming a continuous urban zone right up to the green belt. Indeed, the green belt itself, the result of post-WWII policy, almost seemed to provide a clearer demarcation between London and its surrounds than the LCC’s official boundaries.

It seemed logical, therefore, that administrative London should be redefined to cover all of urban London. Not surprisingly, for a number of reasons, various communities though did not want to be so defined. Their allegiances lay with their present county (which was also their postal county). This opposition was not universal and many suburbs, together with their local councils saw that this logically made sense. What followed was a lot of campaigning on both sides to try and sort out a boundary acceptable to everyone as part of the creation of a new Greater London Council.


Surrey in particular seemed to be a particular hotbed for resistance to the idea of becoming part of London. Elsewhere, the present day London Borough of Bromley became part of London, despite its rural nature. The southern tip of what is now the London Borough of Croydon also joined the metropolis. Neither of these unions were entirely amicable – evidenced today by the fact that many jokingly (or perhaps not so jokingly) remark that Bromley still likes to pretend that is part of Kent – but they did ultimately happen. Other areas that did not want to become part of London, however, were more successful in their campaigns.

One of the most notable of those areas was that of Epsom & Ewell.

Having part of a wider urban area geographically not be part of it administratively was always going to lead to problems eventually. At the time though, the issue of local transport subsidy, accountability and how you maintain transport continuity across an artificial administrative border was probably not seen as much of an issue.

In the long term though, by excluding some areas from the Greater London Area, it has led to transport anomalies which are generally to the detriment of those who live within them. So it is in Epsom & Ewell, where there is well-documented resentment at the fact they are mostly not entirely considered to be part of zone six. Oyster is not valid at Epsom station itself, for example.

It also means that residents of Epsom & Ewell who find themselves over 60, but under the current pension age, are not eligible for free travel in London. Somewhat perversely, this means that all London residents over 60 can travel free by train to or from Tattenham Corner (in zone six but also technically within the Epsom & Ewell parliamentary constituency) but that those living in Tattenham Corner itself have no right to do the same.

For some Londoners, there might be the temptation to view complaints from the good citizens of Epsom and Ewell with little sympathy. These areas, after all, fought for their right to opt out. Now they seem to want the benefits of being a member of the London club without actually having to pay their administrative dues.

Not everyone living in Epsom now, of course, played a part in that original decision. For the actions of their forefathers (fore-residents?) those people are now left to bear the consequences. Nonetheless, within Epsom and Ewell significant separatist sentiment does still remain.

One would naturally expect that sentiment to bubble through to the area’s MP. Nevertheless, a short letter from him to the London Mayor dated 19th September 2016 seemed to suggest that, whilst accountability was a concern, London rail devolution was still at least on the agenda.

Dear Sadiq,
I have been considering the proposals published by our predecessors for the potential devolution of suburban services to Transport for London.

In order to understand your proposals more closely, the government would like to invite you to provide a business case for TfL to run services as proposed in the prospectus. Due to time pressures around the franchising programme, the department will need to see your case by 14th October at the latest.

Within your business case, you should in particular address how such devolution will enable benefits to be delivered for all passengers. This case should also set out how you propose to manage trade-offs between inner and outer suburban markets and, where capacity is available for improved services, enable all passengers to benefit from that, not just those from within the Greater London area.

Once I have received your business case, it will then be for the government to consider what steps to take.

This letter is perhaps more telling than was realised at the time. It is clear that Chris Grayling is aware of the time pressures. The letter was not written for more than two months after his appointment and this could normally be regarded as unforgiveable. These were not normal times though and undoubtedly, as expressed by the man himself, his top priority was addressing the issues of the Southern dispute – one of the few transport issues that had (and still has) attracted serious attention from Number 10.

What is also clear is that, according to the letter from Chris Grayling, the issues of benefitting all passengers and concerns for those outside the Greater London area are paramount. In the original of this short letter the phrase ‘all passengers’ occurs twice. On one of those occasions the word ‘all’ is underlined and that is the only occasion underlining is used in the letter. On the other occasion it is really spelt out: ‘not just those from within the Greater London area.’

There are a many things Chris Grayling can be (and has been) accused of as a result of how events turned out, but perhaps one thing he cannot be accused of is not at least indicating that he had some concerns. In hindsight, he was saying to Sadiq Khan and TfL ‘accountability to those outside London is my big concern. Convince me otherwise’.

There are perhaps reasons to question Chris Grayling’s motives and we will look at the rivalry between the two men later in this article. Be that as it may, ultimately the Secretary of State had indicated that accountability was a concern that needed to be addressed.

Missing the trick

What seemed to follow was a lesson similar to the consequences of not reading an exam question carefully. For the response from the Mayor failed largely to address the issue of accountability, instead putting forward his own case for TfL to take over Southeastern Metro services.

You can read that response here – a combination of documents that were prepared to answer the queries that it was hoped would be present in such a letter (and may well have been had McLoughlin remained in post) rather than actually addressing the issue that Grayling seemed to be indicating was his concern.

One might wonder if the response would have been rather different if it had been answered by General Counsel (legal advisor) at TfL rather than TfL Rail, who were the people who probably prepared the reply. One also might also wonder if things would have been different if both TfL and the Mayoralty hadn’t recently experienced major changes at the top.

This is not to disparage the skills of either Mike Brown or Sadiq Khan, both of whom have demonstrated that they are politically aware operators. Simply that at the time both men were still primarily focused on defining a working relationship with each other.

One could argue that had Sir Peter Hendy, notable for his ability to sniff changing political winds, still been Commissioner then he may have picked up the subtle shift in DfT tone. But for TfL and Brown, building trust with the new Mayor and establishing boundaries with his team was still likely a near-all-consuming task.

Similarly, whilst politically astute at the politics of Westminster, Sadiq Khan was still new to the politics of the Mayoralty. Whilst the position of Mayor of London represents a powerful public platform, it relies on a number of delicate relationships with central government that are based as much on consent as on explicit legislation. A Mayor more familiar with those fragile relationships might have realised that he was no longer setting the agenda and that it was time to go onto the defensive.

The Mayor’s response, whilst initially appearing to be quite impressive, thus seems to have done his cause no favours. Nor did he seem to realise, or if he had been warned so, accept that every political blow he successfully landed on Grayling over the failure to devolve Southern trains was inflicting equal damage on his likelihood of services being devolved elsewhere.

Again, one should not lay too much of the blame before Brown and Khan for missing the signs. Hindsight is 20/20 and perhaps the most telling evidence of this is the appendix in the business case with letters of support. Without wishing to be unfair to Caroline Pidgeon and the Liberal Democrats, or indeed any of the other London organisations that wrote in support, their letters too didn’t exactly help the case.

A few days before Chris Grayling wrote to Sadiq Khan, Caroline Pidgeon, in her capacity as chair of the GLA transport committee, wrote to Chris Grayling pledging her support and giving reasons for devolution. Her arguments for the perceived benefits of rail devolution were well put, but probably unnecessary as these had been well aired. Her final bullet point was that:

Stronger accountability: Passengers will know they can hold the Mayor of London directly to account for their rail service.

Clearly this was a well-intentioned comment but probably one that in reality helped undermine the Mayor’s case if Grayling was indeed as much concerned about accountability without London as within. It would appear that this letter was included as part of the Mayor’s business case and, if it was, it showed that even a battle-hardened veteran of London transport politics like Caroline Pidgeon could occasionally miss the signs.

Although Pidgeon’s comments could be construed as particularly unfortunate given the standing of her committee, her comment was not alone. Transport for All finished their letter with:

TfA therefore strongly urges the Secretary of State to devolve all of London’s rail services to the Mayor so that we can have a rail network in the capital that can be used by all Londoners

If only the final word had been passengers and not Londoners. Many of the letters were letters of support from various areas of London – all well and good but not addressing the Secretary of State’s concern.

In fact there were letters of support from outside London. Most notable were Hertfordshire County Council, Kent County Council, Sevenoaks District Council and Sevenoaks Rail Travellers Association. Sevenoaks Rail Travellers association admitted that for many of their members the primary benefit would be in fares and ticketing as the majority of users would continue to catch fast trains not provided by Transport for London.

In view of Chris Grayling’s constituency, a positive letter of support from Surrey County Council would have probably been helpful, but there was not one there. Also fairly damning was the absence of any support from Dartford – either from the borough council or the MP. Given that Dartford is highly analogous to Epsom in being just outside the GLA boundary, and thus the town outside the GLA area most affected by London Overground taking over Southeastern Metro services, its omission would probably have been noted. Needless to say, there was no letter of support from Epsom & Ewell borough council either – but then it is unlikely that anyone would have seriously expected to have seen one.

An unexpected decision

It came as an unwelcome surprise to many in late November when the first signs emerged that maybe, after all, rail devolution was not going to happen. Tom Edwards of the BBC had reported the story as early as 24 November, based on an interview with Gavin Barwell, the Minister for London. Interestingly, Gavin Barwell never provided his own opinion in this interview (or at least if he did it was not reported). Instead he refers to ‘the Secretary of State’. Of course Mr Barwell could hardly say “Nuffin to do with me guv’nor, it’s all that Grayling fellow’s idea not to pursue it”.

The Chancellor’s Autumn statement was also unexpectedly silent on the subject, which did nothing to calm growing concerns. By the time the subsequent announcement came from the Secretary of State about the change in role for Network Rail, it was clear from various comments within this that an announcement confirming the expansion of London Overground was not going to happen soon.

It was made clear that the Secretary of State was not convinced that further rail devolution was the best way forward. Clearly, and with some justification, he wanted to sort out the problems caused by having track maintenance and running the franchise being the responsibility of two different organisations. If this were sorted out then this should benefit all Train Operating Company (TOC) areas and not just one or two. One can understand, even if one doesn’t agree, that having two major reorganisations at the same time may not be a good idea.

Personal politics

Below the surface there are rumours and innuendos galore that what happened was nothing to do with trying to give Londoners the best rail service, or indeed trying to give everybody who uses London rail services the best rail service. Instead it was ‘old-fashioned party politics’. This is essentially the first time the Mayoralty and central government are being run by politicians of different political parties for any substantial period of time. Londoners with long memories will remember that the last time that happened it caused so much friction that then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher arguably resorted to disbanding the entire GLC in order to rid herself of Ken Livingstone.

One should always take such rumours with a pinch of salt. As we pointed out in our look at the current status of the proposed extension to the Metropolitan line, however, it is no secret that there has long existed an enmity between Chris Grayling and Sadiq Khan. Their rivalry dates back to their days as Justice and Shadow Justice Ministers, respectively and one must wonder whether Khan would have so vociferously and repeatedly attacked the Secretary of State for Transport on the topic of Southern had it not been Grayling in post. There were – and are – certainly political points to be made on the topic, but had it been McLoughlin one must wonder whether Khan’s attacks would have been aimed slightly less at the man in the DfT’s top office and more at the TOC itself, where they may have been less damaging to the Mayor’s cause.

Similarly, had it been Zac Goldsmith – or indeed another Labour politician – in the Mayor’s office, then Grayling may not have been quite so circumspect about his apparent concerns. He certainly seemed to revel in catching Khan off-guard with his eventual announcement that devolution was over. As we pointed out in our Metropolitan line piece, on the same day that Grayling and Khan met to discuss London rail (by all accounts giving no indication as to what was coming), Grayling also gave an interview to the Evening Standard officially ruling devolution out. It was an act that at best smacked of professional discourtesy, but at worst was a calculated swipe at a rival. Indeed if multiple LR sources on Fleet Street are to be believed, not only did Grayling meet Mayor and journalist on the same day, but deliberately scheduled them back-to-back.

Given all the above, it is perhaps not entirely surprising that the Mayor is reported to be rather angry that devolution of Southeastern Metro rail services will not happen any time soon.

Instead of rail devolution, the BBC reports that Chris Grayling plans to make the new Southeastern franchise one of the first where there is closer integration with Network Rail over maintenance and services. The Mayor has been asked to be “closely involved” in planning for the future on suburban routes through south east London.

This desire for an alternative solution could be genuine, but equally cynics could argue the Secretary of State just doesn’t like the idea of TfL running services outside London and is determined to find an alternative model to operate the railways so that the benefits are achieved without giving TfL more jurisdiction – or giving the Mayor of London credit for a policy that is popular with voters.

Things took a further twist when it emerged that in 2013 Boris Johnson, then Mayor of London, had written to MPs in and around London urging their support for rail devolution. As reported by the BBC, Chris Grayling wrote back and stated that:

I would like to keep suburban rail services outside the clutch of any future Labour mayor

Whilst that, taken on its own, does seem pretty damning, the letter continues

[T]he continuation of the system we have at the moment does at least mean that MPs and local authorities from outside the London area would have a remit over trains services in our areas, which I would not like us to lose.

This further point works very much in Chris Grayling’s favour. It shows that he was concerned way back in 2013 that expanding the remit of TfL would make them unaccountable outside London – as one might expect the representative of Epsom and Ewell to be.

It is disappointing that it appears that Chris Grayling may have put party before the interests of the country – or London – but at the time he was quite entitled to write such a letter. Crucially, if challenged by judicial review, Chris Grayling can also argue that he spelt out exactly what his concerns were, that they were completely rational, and that no-one has produced any sort of case (let alone a convincing one) to allay his fears. As always with judicial review issues, we remind readers the question is not whether the person made the right decision, but whether they made a reasonable decision taking into account all relevant (and only the relevant) factors.

Fin. For now…

Whatever happens next, TfL and the Mayor are not about to forget about this. Even the draft TfL business plan, published a few days after the devolution announcement, criticised the decision and stated:

We have set aside £20m of funding to enable us to start work immediately should the position change in light of our arguments.

One suspects the logic behind this is that TfL and the current Mayor will probably be around for a long time, whereas Secretaries of State for Transport generally aren’t. The hope is clearly that if (or rather when) Grayling is moved on, that the door to devolution will open again.

Indeed for many, Chris Grayling will be cast as the politician who killed off TfL devolution on spurious grounds – certainly it seems to be the narrative the Mayor himself is keen to push. This may or may not be the case, but circumstance and luck have arguably played as much of a part. Without the ripples caused by Brexit, the MP for an area so traditionally resistant to London’s authority would likely not have been making decisions that relied upon expanding it. Nor would a face-off between two old rivals in Grayling and Khan have occurred.

Nor can the Mayor and TfL be considered entirely blameless, once these events had occurred. Even if the worst of the innuendo is true and Grayling’s decision was largely down to politics (party or personal), by failing to justify themselves fully on the subject of accountability they give him the cover to make such a decision. One can moan at the question set in an exam, but one must still attempt to answer it – not the question one wanted to have been set. Not addressing the concerns raised by the person who has the power to approve or block progress did nothing to advance the cause of rail devolution.

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Written by John Bull
John Bull is the Editor of London Reconnections. A transport journalist and historian, his writing often focuses on the political or strategic challenges facing London's transport network and beyond.