London transport is at a pivotal moment. With insecure funding, pressure to reduce service levels and put up fares will grow stronger. But there are other ongoing issues, many of which predate the pandemic. Here are they key issues to look out for.
The London commuter network that is outside the control of Transport for London has diverged from the services of London Overground and TfL Rail.
These services already suffered from pricing differentials, but these are becoming more noticeable with continued above inflation fare rises. Passengers who rely on both services to complete their journey pay much more than London Underground passengers. This particularly affects South London passengers.
Service levels are also diverging. Whereas TfL has maintained near full pre-pandemic levels on their rail services, the National Rail operators under the control of the Department for Transport have provided much more unpredictable and reduced service levels. Again South London is disproportionately affected, but all National Rail users have been subject to seemingly random changes in service levels and timetables.
Further down the line, the upcoming changes as part of the introduction of Great British Railways could include more threats, and indeed opportunities, for London.
The roadspace reallocation programme which was accelerated by the pandemic appears to have ground to a halt. Even in places with exceptionally low levels of car ownership schemes have been reversed, reviewed and removed.
We would expect to see innovation and iteration with these schemes, but there is a real sense that the whole business of improving opportunities for active travel has been put on hold because of the 2022 council elections. I remain unconvinced these will prove to be a significant vote switcher. We cannot afford to delay dealing with the climate emergency because of the electoral cycle.
Oyster cards and contactless bank cards still do not have parity of features and fares. This remains an unacceptable oversight for Transport for London. It is particularly galling to see attempts to remove cash payments at London Underground stations when it is known that people who do not have contactless bank cards will be frozen out from the best value fares. This has been an issue since contactless payments were introduced almost ten years ago. Is TfL sitting on its hands?
London Buses are in a precarious position. They are the most commonly used form of public transport, but do not produce the most revenue. Fares have been cross-subsidised by the London Underground for as long as the two modes have shared common ownership. Until the Tube returns to profitability there will be calls to make savings on the buses.
The TfL business plan was already looking to make cuts in bus services in Inner London with a view to increasing services in Outer London, as part of a strategy to decrease car dependence in parts of London where private vehicle trips remain high. It is hard to envisage this transfer taking place in the current post-pandemic reality. Watch for the cuts, but not the service level increases.
Then there is the matter of road trips now being above pre-pandemic levels. Despite bus lanes and other prioritisation being in place, the buses are particularly vulnerable to delays caused by congestion. Delayed bus routes are more expensive to run as you need more buses running to provide similar levels of service. But of more concern is the effect unreliability has on patronage. Put simply, people stop using unreliable services.
What not to do
Putting up fares and reducing service levels is a recipe for a downwards spiral to oblivion. We’ve seen public transport run down in other cities and towns until the services became so unviable for passengers they were abandoned by all but those with no other option and then scrapped. And London has been here before too, many times in its history, trying to deal with effects of budget shortfalls and congested roads. These problems are not new, so let’s not repeat the mistakes of the past.
What would you do?
Service levels must be maintained to keep public transport competitive with the car. Fares need to be revisited to make sure they are appropriate for new flows of passengers. It might be appropriate to have higher fares at different times of day, but simply keeping to the old fares structure and ramping up the price isn’t going increase patronage.
Congestion is now a serious concern to more Londoners than ever before. There are now several schemes in place to deal with air pollution and congestion, but they do not go far enough. Fair and comprehensive pricing needs to be introduced to bring down traffic levels and provide new revenue for public transport.
South Londoners and others who rely on National Rail need a plan in place to ensure their service levels are protected. Perhaps this is suburban rail coming into London Overground or perhaps it is something short of that like TfL controlling all fares within the London boundary. Whatever it is, passengers should no longer get a worse deal merely because the train they get on is controlled by a different part of the state.