View from the street: Battle looms over public transport’s future

Underground lines are set to be affected this week.

By 2018, fares accounted for 72 per cent of TfL revenue - Credit: Archant

For all the talk of a return to normality a few journeys by bus or underground soon reveal that some things have changed, perhaps fundamentally.

The pandemic predictably led to a dramatic reduction in passenger numbers, which has persisted since the relaxation of Covid-related restrictions. The pandemic also exposed the fragility of a transport funding model heavily reliant on fare revenue to operate what has become a substantially privatised network. By 2018 fares accounted for 72 per cent of Transport for London (TfL) revenue, roughly twice the figure for transport networks in the likes of New York and Paris.

George Binette, Hackney North & Stoke Newington Clp Trade Union Liaison Officer

George Binette is worried about the future of public transport - Credit: George Binette

Central government’s multiple “bailouts” to TfL have come with long strings attached. Mayor Sadiq Khan’s administration, with strictly limited legal powers, has wrung minimal concessions. So far, the four-year freeze on most fares has ended with an average 3.3pc hike on London’s bus services and 2.9pc rise on the Underground; free travel for those under 18 has disappeared, and investment to provide step-free access to several Tube stations has been slashed. Pre-Covid, Hackney residents, the vast majority without cars, had already seen bus services shrink and Overground staffing levels cut.

With the latest bailout the government has appointed multinational consultants KPMG to identify a further £300million in “savings” and sources for up to £1billion a year in increased revenue from 2023. The agenda imposed by Tory transport secretary Grant Shapps includes cuts to bus services, the introduction of driverless Tube trains and a potential raid on the TfL pension scheme along with even steeper fare hikes at a time when some US cities are trialling free bus travel.

Unions have expressed fear that the Tories’ ultimate aim is wholesale TfL privatisation. Government rhetoric about combating climate change certainly rings hollow when it looks determined to attack vitally important transport provision and TfL’s workforce.

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Transport unions may win few popularity contests with the wider public, but in the absence of an adequate fightback from politicians, those unions offer the best prospect not only for defending their members’ pay and conditions, but the future of London’s public transport network.

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