Fare freezes are popular but misguided
It has been two years since Sadiq Khan’s campaign promise to freeze fares in London has been implemented. Since then, public transport in London, both on rail and road, has been in a crisis. TfL, who are responsible for much of its management, have nearly a £1bn a year budget shortfall. Passenger numbers on the Underground, and even more so on London Buses, have begun to fall after decades of growth. But London’s transport crisis promises to become even greater if Khan’s fare freeze isn’t soon ended.
Already today, London and the South-East are crying out for better rail infrastructure. Every weekday morning sees critical levels of crowding, frequent cancellations, and ever-growing delays on most rail and underground lines into the Metropolis. Until 2017, relief seemed on the horizon. Crossrail was to open in 2018; new rolling stock (the ‘New Tube for London’) was to increase frequency and capacity on existing tube lines; and the Croxley extension of the underused Metropolitan line was to reduce crowding on parallel rail lines by 2022. Since then, Crossrail has been delayed by at least one year; the New Tube for London by five years; and the Croxley extension has been cancelled altogether. The reasons for these developments are manifold, but one is shared by all: a lack of funds.
Yet the consequences of the fare freeze on London’s transport network have been more wide-ranging than this. TfL have been forced to cut the frequency and number of bus lines throughout the capital. They have done this quietly and, to their credit, competently. But the fact is that one-hundred and two (102) bus routes have had their frequencies cut – some by up to 8 buses an hour. London’s millions of bus passengers are the worst hit by this. But they are not the only ones affected.
Buses in London are, on many routes, a competitive means of transport precisely because of their high frequencies, dedicated lanes, and sheer number of lines. If cuts to them continue – as they must, as a fare freeze is effectively, considering inflation, a yearly budget cut – they will become, as they all-too-often are in provincial cities, a last resort for the poor and the elderly; everyone else will crowd even further onto Tube and rail lines, or take a taxi or an Uber. This last outcome – Ubering, as the neologism goes, rather than taking the bus – appears already to be occurring now; bus patronage has fallen from 2.4 billion journeys per annum in 2016 to 2.2 billion in 2018, while Uber and its competitors have continued to grow. And it is precisely this result that is leading to more pollution, more congestion, and ultimately to more expensive journeys for everyone.
The reaction by Khan’s friends and allies to these facts has ranged from denial to blame-shifting. London’s transport network is still the best in the world, says Khan. The passenger decrease has been ‘less severe’ on TfL’s lines than on railway lines not affected by the fare freeze, says the Independent – never mind that the latter were crippled by strike action for several months. TfL is ‘on course to achieve an operating surplus’ despite the freeze, as the Manchester Guardian announced a few months ago. Little local difficulties, all of them.
Those who do accept the gravity of the situation have a different strategy: to shift the blame. The fault for the budget shortfall, they say, is not to be sought with the Mayor’s pet policy, but with the size of the central government’s yearly grant to TfL; says, again, the Guardian: ‘TfLs operation budget […] will be entirely wiped out’ by DfT cuts. The Mayor has even found a cunning way to blame Boris Johnson: ‘the previous mayor agreed a deal with the government to get rid of our operation grant’ dixit Sadiq. As if Boris could have known that his successor would implement so hare-brained a policy as a complete four-year fare freeze.
As unpopular as it may be to say it, most Londoners are paying too little for their transportation. It is unfathomable that a bus fare in the Metropolis is £1.50 regardless of distance, far less than the equivalent fare anywhere else in the country. And where else can one travel around the entire city by train for as little as £1.60? It is of course important, for both social and economic reasons, that public transport remain reasonably affordable. But the system employed under Johnson of very slight year-on-year increases in line with the Retail Price Index (a mere 1% in 2016, the last year it was applied) did not put – by definition – any greater burden on consumers than did other parts of the economy. With his fare freeze, Khan has not demonstrated compassion and understanding for his constituents. Instead, he has let short-termism triumph over long-term thinking, and put political gain over the good of ordinary Londoners.
If Khan continues to have his way, then in London too, the late Baroness Thatcher’s comment that ‘a man beyond the age of 26 who finds himself on a bus can consider himself a failure’ will become reality. Those who rely on trains and tubes will find themselves ever-more squeezed and delayed on their journeys to work. Some will be driven by desperation to use taxis, Ubers, or their own motorcars instead – and further jam London’s already catastrophically congested roads. The Capital’s transport network, already teetering on the brink of collapse, simply cannot afford this. We must end the fare freeze.