After years of sunshine a chill wind developed in the air and it has begun raining down on the mayor and Transport for London

Caroline Pidgeon’s solution is radical but in my view makes a lot of sense


Once upon a time, not very long ago, everything in the garden looked rosy. The sun shone down on a transport network – rail, tube and bus – that was growing healthily. A congestion charge was helping to cut car journeys in the centre, and a brand new addition to the mix – Crossrail – was soon to open, giving a big economic boost to the capital and to Transport for London’s coffers.

But we all know how quickly the English weather can change. The sky became overcast, a chill wind developed in the air, and it began raining down on the mayor and TfL.

Today TfL faces continuing decline in bus passenger numbers, huge delays to Crossrail and the proposed Northern Line extension to Nine Elms, a congestion charge that is increasingly unfit for purpose, and most of all a very worrying budget deficit, made worse by the removal of central government funds that were used to prop up Boris, but which the Tories have no intention of using to prop up Sadiq.

The operating deficit of £968m this year TfL is now optimistic can be reduced to £500m, still a huge figure, and at what cost? Backroom staff are being cut by 30%. Well they are either surplus to requirements in which case why were they there in the first place, or they are not, in which case their loss will create operational problems. And the bus network is being “reshaped”, that is to say cut, of which more later.

Moreover, total forecast income for the year is expected to be £6.66bn (I hope you are not superstitious) and although that includes an expected £305m from the new Ultra Low Emission Zone charge, it is still down on the previous year.

One huge headache has been Crossrail. This was scheduled to open in December last year, but then only weeks before, we were told that this would not happen. In the febrile atmosphere that followed, there was a suggestion that Chris Grayling, the transport secretary, might seize control, given the Department for Transport’s financial stake in the project. Perhaps the minister, warming up to appoint a ferry company with no ferries, was attracted to the idea of a railway line with no trains and no stations.

Mark Wild, the new chief executive, has said it definitely won’t open in 2019 and he doesn’t know when it will. Well, full marks for honesty. The Queen had been booked in to open the line as the Elizabeth line. If the delays get really bad, will we instead have to call it the Charlie Line, or does that have other connotations?

Why is it that so many rail projects end up very late and well over budget, whether it is Crossrail, HS2, or the electrification programme? A detailed generic analysis by the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office would not go amiss.

In Crossrail’s case, there seem to have been lots of little things that have taken much longer than they should have. For instance, it took six weeks longer than planned to fit a set of platform doors at just one station. In the past, you would have built an entire railway in six weeks. As it is, not even one station is finished.

If the mayor, who is chair of TfL, really wants to hold the line that he knew nothing until August 29, the only possible explanation he can now peddle is that he is kept in the complete dark by the very organisation he is supposed to be in charge of.

There has clearly been a problem with leadership. Sadiq Khan says he only found out that the December opening was off shortly before the delay was revealed. As Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem who heads the London Assembly Transport Committee observed:

“If the mayor, who is chair of TfL, really wants to hold the line that he knew nothing until August 29, the only possible explanation he can now peddle is that he is kept in the complete dark by the very organisation he is supposed to be in charge of.”

There is in fact evidence, uncovered by Freedom of Information answers secured by the Evening Standard, that show the mayor’s spin doctors were drafting media releases announcing the delay weeks before the mayor said he knew.

Mark Wild told the Greater London Assembly transport committee, in as many words, that Crossrail’s executive team simply did not have an understanding of the risks they were managing.

Be all that as it may, there is no dispute that the financial consequences of the delay are seriously challenging for TfL. The estimated cost of completion rose last year by a further £600m to £15.4bn. That figure has now mushroomed to £17.6bn. Crossrail is now eating up about £50m a week.

But it is not just the increased cost, or the extra borrowing of millions this entails. There is also the loss of budgeted income. Crossrail was expected to bring in £926m by 2022. TfL can say goodbye to that.

Instead, businesses and developers are going to have to fork out a further £600m to cover the shortfall. The business rates levy will now remain in place until 2038, 28 years after it was first introduced.

In addition, funds are having to be diverted from Crossrail 2. TfL says this will be “for a limited time”, whatever that means. Caroline Pidgeon again: “The true cost of Crossrail’s delayed opening is that Crossrail 2 has suffered a serious and potentially fatal blow.”

Also delayed is the new spur off the Northern line from Kennington to Nine Elms. TfL says that the opening has been put back so as to coincide with the overall completion of the site. This seems an explanation as flimsy as the infamous wobbling walls on the set of the now mercifully defunct ITV soap Crossroads. This delay will also create an unexpected bill.

TfL’s budget has also been battered by the decline in bus passenger numbers, with their own forecasts suggesting a continuing downward trajectory into 2020/21.

Part of TfL’s answer is to cut overall mileage by 7% over the period of their business plan. Central London routes and frequencies will be reduced while those in outer London will be enhanced. The first element appears to be proceeding, while the second is not.

The reduction in frequencies on some routes is already undermining confidence in the successful turn-up-and-go model. I have personally twice in recent weeks had to wait over 25 minutes for a C10 from Victoria towards Canada Water. On one of those occasions the bus stop information slowly counted down a bus to within three minutes of arrival before it vanished off the screen and became a ghost bus. These waits have driven me to abandon the route and resort instead to the tube.

When I was buses ministers, I saw evidence to suggest that people will happily turn up for a bus if the wait is going to be 10 minutes or less. A worse frequency sees numbers drop off sharply, which then begins a vicious cycle of decline – the opposite of what TfL needs.

Nor are bus passengers enamoured with the almost everyday occurrence when a bus is held for up to five minutes at a bus stop to “regulate the service”. As timetables are designed to take account of congestion, this means on the occasions when there is none, some fake congestion has to be imported into the system instead. So bus passengers sit pointlessly on a bus going nowhere with an empty road ahead. We have even seen a 507 destined for Waterloo station wait for ages at the stop before so it arrives at the station on time, to the fury of the full load on the bus.

Sometimes if passengers are lucky, a bus will crawl along the empty road at 5mph, the driver hoping that the green traffic light ahead will change to red. On the other hand, if a bus is late, there is an incentive for the driver potentially to take risks with safety to catch up.

All this of course is a direct consequence of the contract regime imposed on the operators by TfL, a regime which prioritises adherence to the timetable above all else. It also explains why some drivers are uninterested in whether their passengers have paid or not, as the farebox is a matter for TfL, not the operator.

So while it is not a panacea, a different way of holding the operators to their contracts needs to be found. The present arrangements do not work for passengers and are thus a disincentive to bus usage.

But as elsewhere, the biggest problem the bus faces is congestion. When, as I have found, it is quicker to walk from Westminster to Tottenham Court Road rather than take a 24 bus, there is something badly wrong.

Surely it is time to look again at the operation of the congestion charge. This was a great innovation when it first appeared, but is now looking rather tired. In particular, those who pay to enter the zone have no incentive to limit their mileage. Indeed, some may perversely feel that having paid to enter the zone, they want their “money’s worth”.

We also now have the Ultra Low Emission Zone, effective from April 8, applying 24 hours a day in the congestion zone area, but expanding outwards to the north and south circular roads from October 2021.

Road pricing is where it’s going to go, a scheme where you pay per mile on certain roads, and pay more for using those roads at peak times.

Caroline Pidgeon’s solution is radical but in my view makes a lot of sense.

“Road pricing is where it’s going to go, a scheme where you pay per mile on certain roads, and pay more for using those roads at peak times.”

She also advocates combining the existing congestion charge and ultra low emission zone as part of this new arrangement.

“We need a mayor who is brave enough to take this on,” she adds. The question is: do we have one?

About the author:
Norman Baker served as transport minister from May 2010 until October 2013. He was Lib Dem MP for Lewes between 1997 and 2015.

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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