The Transport Secretary was today accused of putting party politics ahead of commuters after a leaked letter revealed he opposed handing over control of suburban rail to keep it “out of the clutches” of Labour.
Chris Grayling formally rejected Sadiq Khan’s bid to take over commuter routes yesterday when he dismissed the plan as “deckchair shifting” with no real improvement for passengers.
But in a letter written before the new Mayor took over, he admitted he was against rail devolution to keep services away from any future Labour mayor, rather than because of the impact on commuters.
In the private note sent to former mayor Boris Johnson three years ago he claimed he had “no fears” over the future of services if the Tories were still running City Hall.
Mr Grayling was writing as a South East MP although he was Justice Secretary at the time so would have had a seat at the Cabinet table where any decision on rail devolution would be approved.
Mr Khan warned that commuters were “far, far more important” than “playing party politics” over the future of suburban rail.
His deputy mayor for transport claimed there was now “just one man” standing in the way of Transport for London taking over the beleaguered commuter routes.
Rail devolution has cross-party support from MPs, councils and the London Assembly, as well as Conservative councils outside London including Surrey, Mr Grayling’s own local authority
But in his letter, sent in April 2013, Mr Grayling told Mr Johnson: “While I am generally a great supporter of what you are doing in London, I would not be in favour of changing the current arrangements.
“Not because I have any fears over the immediate future, but because I would like to keep suburban rail services out of the clutches of any future Labour mayor”.
He added that he did not want MPs and local authorities just outside London to lose their remit over train services in their areas if TfL took over.
Writing in today’s Standard about Mr Grayling’s decision, Mr Khan said: “If I’m honest, I simply do not understand why the Government is now so vehemently opposed to improving suburban rail services in London.
“I sincerely hope it is not because they are reluctant to give control of these lines to a Labour mayor – commuters’ lives are far, far more important than party politics.”
Earlier this year, Mr Johnson and Patrick McLoughlin, Mr Grayling’s predecessor as transport secretary, announced TfL would take control of suburban rail as each franchise came up for renewal.
Mr Johnson, who had long campaigned for devolution of services, hailed the deal as a victory.
Mr McLoughlin said the “new partnership” – under which TfL and the DfT were expected to set up a joint management team – was a “huge opportunity” to improve the lives of passengers.
Aides to both men denied the announcement was an empty promise designed simply to boost Tory chances in the upcoming mayoral race.
Eltham MP Clive Efford, a member of the House of Commons transport committee, told the Standard: “The Transport Secretary’s mask has slipped and his true motives are now clear.
“He is clearly putting party politics above the needs of desperate commuters who are suffering from an abysmal service.
“This betrayal of commuters is particularly poor because rail devolution is supported by politicians from all parties – including Conservative MPs and councils inside and outside London.
“There is only one way Chris Grayling can put this right – he must devolve control of Southeastern services to TfL to ensure commuters in constituencies like mine get a more frequent, reliable and affordable service.”
Mr Grayling told MPs yesterday he had concerns over what impact a major reorganisation of suburban rail would have on commuters.
He suggested that TfL taking over franchises would not necessarily mean more frequent services and raised the issue of democratic accountability on routes which went outside London’s boundaries.
A Government source said: “The Mayor’s business plan promised a big reorganisation but no extra capacity. There are real issues about giving the Mayor control over services to places outside London, when those living there can’t vote for him.”
Tory former minister Bob Neill called on Mr Grayling to stand down saying he had “lost confidence” in him as Transport Secretary.
The Bromley and Chislehurst MP told the Standard: “My discussions with him indicate to me that he’s acted for party reasons and not acted in the interests of London commuters.
“It’s pretty clear that he has a dogmatic opposition to rail devolution and I don’t think that’s a legitimate basis on which to take a decision.
“It demonstrates that he’s acted extremely badly. I don’t have confidence any more in him as Secretary of State”.