It is London’s least-loved New Year ritual: once again, swingeing annual increases in Tube, bus and rail fares have hit commuters returning to work after the holidays. But this year the changes are particularly complex. And they raise hard questions about how we have ended up in this situation, paying ever more for services that don’t seem to improve.
Today sees sharp increases for some, while many fares remain the same. For example, a single Tube journey within Zone 1 now costs an exorbitant £4 in cash – but just £1.50 for Oyster cardholders. Meanwhile cash bus users will pay twice the £1 Oyster fare. A few lucky people may even end up paying less.
Ken Livingstone is openly trying to force everyone to carry an Oyster card in their wallet. Peter Hendy, the transport commissioner for London, justifies the sky-high fares for cash users, saying that more people using Oyster allows TfL to redeploy staff out of booking offices into jobs serving customers. He points out that using Oyster, a bus journey in central London has remained at £1 for the past six years and that, in fact, fewer than one in 20 people now pay in cash compared with one in four in 2001.
That is all very well – but has Hendy seen the queues at the booking offices at Heathrow or King’s Cross? Newly arrived tourists can spend almost as long as their original flight or train journey waiting to buy an Oyster card. The move towards Oyster may be sensible, but it should not be used as a heavy tax on tourists.
And it’s far more complicated than that, because there is no unified policy between Transport for London and the national rail operators. For a start, commuters who use rail before getting on Tubes or buses cannot yet use Oyster on their rail journeys.
At the same time, the private rail operators are exploiting their right to push up commuter fares and season tickets by one per cent above the rate of inflation, currently running at 3.3 per cent. And the rise is a whopping three per cent above inflation for Kent commuters using the old South Eastern lines.
That means most train companies are raising their fares by at least 4.3 per cent; many passengers, particularly those on longer journeys, will see a much bigger increase. Virgin, for example, is increasing its ‘walk-up’ fares by an average of 6.6 per cent.
The good news for national rail travellers is that the London zonal system is being simplified so that rail fares will now be based on the same zones as those used by Tube and buses – a welcome, if belated, measure. But there will be losers as well as winners, depending on precisely where people are travelling from. Broadly, those in the part of a zone nearer central London are most likely to lose out, while those in the further reaches of a zone may well gain.
No wonder people are confused.
These mind-bogglingly complicated fare rises are dictated by the long-term policies of both the Government and Transport for London and the two are not necessarily compatible. In fact, today’s rises reveal fundamental contradictions between the stated aims of Gordon Brown and Transport secretary Douglas Alexander, and what is actually happening.
Ken Livingstone is keen in theory to keep fares rises down. However, he has also embarked on a massive investment programme to improve transport infrastructure – and entered a pact with the Government two years ago whereby he is required to pay for part of those improvements through fares rises.
On the face of it, that sounds reasonable enough. But in fact, it is a short-sighted policy, forcing Londoners to foot the bill while the major projects that would really improve our transport system are stalled for lack of Government commitment.
Above all, London’s transport capacity could be transformed by Crossrail, the Heathrow-to-Stratford link still waiting in the sidings – even though there is clearly no alternative to improving capacity by the mid 2010s, and the plan has been on the stocks in one form or another since the Second World War. It would be an investment not just for London commuters. London is the engine of growth for the entire UK economy and its economic success benefits the country as a whole.
Yet Londoners suffer bigger annual fare increases than elsewhere to foot the bill for patching up the system. And it is Londoners, uniquely of the inhabitants of any other major city in the country, who have to pay to drive into their own city centre to help pay for more buses.
To make Londoners pay for the investment, through hikes in what are already the most expensive Tube fares in the world, is patently unfair.
The Government’s policy on national rail fares is no fairer. The Department for Transport is allowing rail operators to impose above-inflation rises because it is desperate to cut the annual £5b billion subsidy to the railways. That is a trend which is going to continue, because fares rises damp down demand for rail travel on the already overcrowded commuter network.
To solve the chronic overcrowding problems on routes like those into Waterloo, we desperately need extra capacity, such as longer platforms, extra rolling stock and more track. But that would require billions which the Government is reluctant to spend. Far easier to push a few luckless commuters on to the overcrowded roads or on to slow-moving buses. And if ministers care nothing for the hellish conditions suffered by commuters, they seem equally oblivious to the damage this policy does to London’s competitiveness and international reputation.
What is lacking here is any coherent transport strategy. Do ministers really want us to leave our cars behind and travel where possible by public transport, or not? If they do, then it is through the price mechanism that people are most likely to change their behaviour: when rail and buses become an obviously cheaper option than jumping in the car, people will switch. And yet in Gordon Brown’s recent pre-budget statement, he announced a paltry rise in petrol tax. By contrast, public transport users are hit by above-inflation fare rises.
Our transport system is the lifeblood of the capital, on which depends the whole British economy. Fleecing commuters rather than investing properly isn’t just wrongheaded and unfair. It is counterproductive. And in the end is not just those crammed on the Northern line or the Number 3 who will suffer as a result. It is workers and businesses throughout the rest of the country, too.
Christian Wolmar is author of The Subterranean Railway, a history of the London Underground, (Atlantic Books, £9.99)