Tackling the problems of London’s transport system

London is characterised by its transport system probably more than any other city. The famous London Transport logo, the roundel, embodies the very essence of the capital and is actively used to attract tourists who come away full of praise for the transport system. Yet, to Londoners, the transport system is a constant source of complaint. The roads are permanently clogged, with traffic speeds the same as those endured by our Victorian forebears; the Tube is overcrowded and stifling hot during the summer; and the buses never seem to come until they arrive in threes.

In a way, both images are true. London does have a very comprehensive public transport system which has benefited from increased investment in recent years. But the backlog will take years to catch up and the long term failure of imagination of both central and local government means that London simply does not have enough basic transport infrastructure. No Tube line was built under central London between 1907 and 1968, and since then just two have been completed, the Victoria and Jubilee. Yet, demand for the system has soared with nearly 950m users annually and the Tube network is simply overstretched with some stations having to be shut temporarily at peak times and trains crammed to the gunwales throughout the day.

On taking office in 1997, the Labour government quickly realised that the Tube needed investment, but refused to break the Tory spending plans, so tried to find a way of getting the private sector involved. The resulting battle over its Public Private Partnership for the London Underground dominated the issue of investment in London’s transport during the first six years of Labour’s government. The PPP is a bizarre, experimental concept which was supposed to ensure the upgrading of the Underground system through the private sector in order to get round the Treasury rules. The Underground was split into four – three private infrastructure companies (in fact, two contracts went to the same company, Metronet) each responsible for the track, signalling and rolling stock on three or four lines, and an operator which is London Underground, controlled by Transport for London, the mayor’s transport arm.

Ken Livingstone opposed the scheme and sought, instead, to be allowed to raise investment money directly with bonds but, for ideological rather than practical reasons, the government drove the PPP scheme through even though much of the original reasoning behind it no longer applied. For example, initially the idea was presented as not requiring any subsidy but, in fact, the infrastructure companies (infracos) are now getting a staggering £1bn per year from the taxpayer. While Londoners will undoubtedly see some benefits from the huge amounts being spent, the PPP remains a complex and expensive way of funding infrastructure that is unlikely to be value for money.

In his foreword to the first annual report on the London Underground since the start of the PPP contracts which was published on 17 June, the managing director, the highly capable American Tim O’Toole makes precisely this point. He says: ‘The scope of work of the PPP is primarily driven by financial incentives intended to reward or penalise the infracos based upon actual system performance and the efficacy of this quite experimental system is unproven in the world of public transport’.

Surprisingly, the PPP, despite the huge payments to the infracos, does not involve the construction means no new lines. In terms of rail services, there are three major projects which have all been around for years, even decades: Crossrail, a tunnel linking the rail networks of Paddington and Liverpool Street; the East London line, which involves extending the current little line to Highbury and Croydon with a spur to Clapham Junction and Thameslink 2000, boosting the capacity of the most heavily used commuter service on the network.

However, all these schemes, together with the even longer term Crossrail 2, the scheme that used to be the Chelsea to Hackney tube line, are on hold, awaiting Treasury approval together which, in turn, is looking for some sort of private involvement. Tony Blair has even repeatedly said that Crossrail is essential and yet, in seven years of Labour government, he has failed to commit his government to the scheme. Thameslink 2000 seems to be stuck completely, even though a decade ago Railtrack was sold at a discount in order to allow the company to fund it. Following a planning enquiry, the inspector wanted some aspects of the scheme redesigned and that seems to have given the government the excuse to sit on it, apparently indefinitely. Indeed, a ‘box’ is being built under the new St Pancras Station which is being refurbished as the new Eurostar terminal for the expanded Thameslink services but initially it be ghost station, fitted out with everything except the railway lines to connect it with the network and meanwhile commuters will continue to replace the ghastly and overcrowded nearby King’s Cross Thameslink.

The East London Line, which is to be extended to Croydon and eventually Clapham Junction and Highbury is the most likely early runner but even then only if Transport for London can drive forward the project which, again, has sat on the government’s desk mouldering for years.

London, therefore, is unlikely to benefit from any new major rail infrastructure before the end of the decade. And even more minor improvements are unlikely. There are, too, a variety of ` schemes which TfL is promoting but these, too, are expensive and in the case of the one proposed along the Uxbridge Road, have attracted widespread opposition. Currently, apart from some preliminary work on the East London line, the only major scheme on which construction has started is the Docklands Light Railway extension to the City Airport due to open next year and the Channel Tunnel Rail Link along which will allow fast trains from Kent to St Pancras, probably in 2007.

As for roads, essentially the days of attempting to drive motorway through the capital are at an end. There were two major attempts to do so – the motorway boxes of the 1970s and the road assessment studies in the 1980s – but both foundered in the face of major opposition. Ken Livingstone has managed to obtain the agreement in principle for a major river crossing in East London linking Barking and Thamesmead but the staggering cost – estimated at £400m – and, again, the unpopularity, put even this scheme in doubt. Essentially, better management of existing roads, rather than the construction of any new ones, is the only feasible option.

Unable to affect the PPP and aware of the costs of providing major infrastructure, Ken Livingstone focussed on two areas where he felt he could make a difference, buses and the imposition of the £5 congestion charge to motorists in central London. The latter are generally seen as an unglamorous form of transport neglected by transport planners. But Livingstone poured money into the service, putting on new routes and modern buses, notably the double length bendy-buses which are much easier to get on and off than the old double deckers. They also had a slight tendency to burst into flames but fortunately this has now been remedied.

The idea was to make a rapid improvement to public transport and it seems to have worked. The numbers using buses have soared from 3.7m per day to 4.6m, and on some days have even reached 5m, more even than in the post war period when the private car was a rarity. This is a reward for improvements in the service and keeping the fares down, but the growth has come at a cost, a high one. The subsidy for buses will reach £1bn within a couple of years and there is not enough in the TfL budget to continue the current level of service, let alone maintain the rate of expansion.

In most countries this would seem unexceptional. If you want a good transport service, you have to pay for it. In Britain, however, subsidy is considered to be unacceptable and the government, with the re-election of Livingstone, now faces something of a dilemma over the issue. Should it come to his rescue and ensure that growth in bus use can continue, or will it force him to reduce services and put up fares. Probably there will be a fudge, with Livingstone being forced to raise fares but provided with a bit of extra cash from the government. Moreover, with a few exceptions such as Brighton and Leeds, bus use has declined outside the capital and therefore the government may wish to encourage the now Labour mayor in his efforts to boost pubic transport. Sure, there has probably been some waste and the service still often leaves something to be desired. However, there is no doubt that buses have helped to plug the gap, particularly in the outer London areas, left in the transport system by years of underinvestment.

Livingstone’s other great achievement, controversial too, is of course the congestion charge. Its ostensible success is important not just because it has helped the centre of London become a more liveable place, but, more important, it has shown that it is possible to try to control the never-ending growth of private motorised traffic. Moreover, Livingstone introduced the charge amidst almost universal hostility in the media and it has been so successful that it even paved the way for his re-entry into the Labour Party with Tony Blair giving the mayor credit for its introduction. There have, of course, been problems, not least with the contract with Capita, the company managing the scheme and the fact that its very success in reducing central London traffic has meant that there is less revenue than expected. There is, too, evidence that some shops have been adversely affected by the imposition of the charge, but the effect seems pretty marginal and may have more to do with wider dissatisfaction with the Oxford Street environment. Livingstone is consulting over whether to extend the scheme into west London. The benefits seem to be marginal because that would mean there will be more residents who pay only 10 per cent of the charge. Nevertheless Livingstone is keen and it will be one of the big issues of his second term.

Apart from underinvestment, the other big failing of the capital’s transport system is the lack of coordination between the various transport providers, in particular, rail and underground services. Again, most cities have an overall co-ordinating body which determines investment priorities and makes sure there is integration between the different modes. London has never had such a body, though in 1933 when London Transport was created, suburban rail services were going to be included in its remit until the then private companies protested.

And ironically, today, there are again problems cause by the new generation of private rail companies. Indeed, if anything characterises the stupidity of not having a single transport authority for the capital, it is the Oyster card. This is a £1bn project to have a system of smart cards and readers that allows passengers to make a variety of journeys paying through different systems all using the same card which does not even have to be taken out of the wallet. For example, it can be used to make a one off journey on the Tube or a bus, or count as a Travelcard for multiple journeys, or be a weekly or monthly pass. There have, however, been teething problems with the system which started to be introduced at the beginning of the year. For example, it is still not possible to use Oyster as a Travelcard as the software to ensure that the day’s charge is capped at the Travelcard level has not yet been introduced. So passengers going on several journeys on the same day have been overcharged and although London Underground will reimburse them, it is a hassle and few people know this anyway.

That, though, is a temporary technical difficulty. The more intractable problem is that the card cannot be used on journeys on London’s rail network, even when the journey takes place entirely within the zone boundaries. Here the sheer daftness of not having an overall London authority is demonstrated. The train companies do not want to pay for the equipment to be installed. They are, after all, only short term franchisees who may not get the money back on their investment. Moreover, there are extra complications like the fact that season ticket holders get refunds if they use a line where the trains have frequently been late. But if they just buy a season ticket through the Oyster card, they will not be entitled to one. These sorts of anomalies are terribly difficult to sort out without some overall coordinating body.

Transport for London is hoping that under the rail review, it will be given more powers over the rail network. Initially, it had lobbied to become the franchising authority for London, letting out train services in an area stretching from the south Coast to Milton Keynes. But aware that this was not going to win over ministers, it has toned down its plans and is now seeking a much more limited remit. In its submission to the rail review, TfL makes a series proposals to be given extra powers ranging from more control over the timetable for suburban services to being given responsibility for major projects and enhancements. The government is not unsympathetic and a draft of the review suggests that TfL might be given the power to vary service levels or fares and that there should be ‘a single decision making body. This is eminently sensible stuff but how it would work in practice has not been decided. In truth, Londoners are going to have to continue to face most of the existing problems caused by the history of their transport system for many years to come.

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