The axing of free travel for under-18s on public transport in London is a “temporary” measure which could be reversed by the London Mayor in due course, transport secretary Grant Shapps confirmed today.
The concession was suspended last month as part of the government’s bailout deal with Transport for London, prompting vigorous campaigning by Labour members of the London Assembly. The deal saw £1.6 billion funding, including a £505 million loan, agreed to keep the system running until 17 October, with conditions including above-inflation fares hikes and widening the scope and level of the congestion charge as well as curbing free travel for children and, during morning peak hours, over-60s.
The main reason for the condition, with social distancing rules substantially reducing capacity on London’s tubes and buses, was “demand management”, Shapps told the commons transport committee. In the short term, he said, with under-18s generally taking shorter journeys and with “active travel” options available, removing the concession “needed to be done”.
While there was also concern that the bailout would have seen taxpayers in general paying for a concession not available outside London, Shapps said, he confirmed that City Hall could reverse the decision: “In the long-term, once the finances are resolved, the Mayor can make the trade-offs.”
The minister also criticised Mayor Khan’s fares freeze, claiming £700 million in revenue had been foregone over the four-year period when fares in the capital had not kept pace with inflation – while accepting that the need for the bailout went beyond the impact of the freeze. “But if taxpayers in general are stepping up then it is important that the Mayor and TfL are doing everything proper to get revenue in,” he added. “No-one likes it, but we have to put fares up to keep the money coming in.”
Updates presented separately to TfL’s finance committee this morning confirmed that passenger levels and income were down by 90 per cent in April and May, with the system losing £75 million a week, capital spending down by more than 50 per cent, and budget shortfalls of more than £1 billion expected through the rest of the year. A revised and significantly curtailed TfL budget is due to be agreed at the end of July.
Shapps also confirmed to MPs that the rail network across the country “would have failed in very quick order” if the government had not stepped in at the beginning of the crisis as “ultimate guarantor” of services. Supporting the train operators has cost some £3.5 billion to date.
And the minister hinted at early reform of the rail franchise system, with TfL’s London Overground operation as a possible model. The crisis had provided the opportunity to move faster, towards a “different type of railway”, he said – “More like the way TfL operates.”
The comments came after junior transport minister Chris Heaton-Harris confirmed on Monday to Mayor Khan’s transport deputy Heidi Alexander that discussions on devolving Great Northern inner suburban services out of Moorgate to TfL would be stepped up.
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