Paul Wheeler: Let’s restructure London’s rail services and do away with travel zones

Paul Wheeler: Let’s restructure London’s rail services and do away with travel zones

When were travel zones introduced in London? Contrary to widespread perceptions they were not built into the fabric of the capital’s transport system but introduced as recently as the 1980s. Nor are they common in other major cities. Both New York and Paris have one city-wide zone on a network of comparable size to London’s. Berlin has two zones, but effectively charges the same fare in both although, interestingly, it does have a higher-priced zone for its new airport, which may be an interesting precedent for London.

London also seems to manage quite happily with one city-wide bus zone. What’s going on? I suspect part of the original reasoning was Labour’s view that inner London was full of the poor struggling masses and therefore the rich, entitled outer suburbs should pay more as part of the “Fare’s Fair” strategy.

But fast forward 40 years and London doesn’t much look like that anymore. Many of the poor struggling masses of Zones 1 and 2 have been evicted by high rents and prices and the outer boroughs of Bexley, Croydon, Enfield and Haringey don’t look so entitled anymore. Increasingly for many in areas in Zone 4 and 5, such as Thamesmead, Colliers Wood, Dagenham and Edmonton, the existing fare structure for the Underground and rail looks like a tax on the poor and, even worse, a subsidy for the tourists and rich professionals of Zone 1.

And 2023 has brought another delight to the weary travellers of suburban London, especially those reliant on train providers such as Southeastern. The new timetables introduced in December promised to produce a slightly reduced but reliable service. Well, they have been partially successful as they have introduced a reliably awful standard of service right across the network, as any of the thousands kettled at London Bridge station can testify.

So now is the time to implement the well-rehearsed plan to bring all London’s suburban rail routes into the London Overground system. The good reasons for this were clearly outlined in 2016 by a leading advocate of such a change promising who promised 15-minute service schedules in 80 per cent of the stations and a delivery plan to be started with Southeastern in 2018 and completed by 2021 with Thameslink and Southern Rail. He said:

“Our railways have been the workhorse of London and the south east economy since Victorian times. By working closely together and taking on these new services, we are going to emulate the success of the London Overground and give the entire capital and surrounding areas the services they truly deserve.”

Thank you, Boris Johnson.

Obviously, a lot has happened since then including the tenure as transport secretary of the hapless Chris Grayling from 2016-2019 and the disastrous impact of Covid-19 on Transport for London’s finances.

But things can’t continue in their present state. Changes in work patterns mean there is an opportunity for TfL to consider the potential for a single fare structure with the added benefit of encouraging tourists to venture outside Zone 1.

The collapse of reliable rail services in many parts of suburban London lacking easy access to the Tube risks creating a tale of two cities in our capital and discriminating against some of our poorest communities. A revised plan to integrate and transform London’s suburban rail system could also take the heat and hostility of the present debate about the extension of the Ultra-Low Emission Zone to cover all of Outer London.

Political serendipity means it looks increasingly likely that the next general and London mayoral elections could  take place on the same day in May 2024. Given the number of marginal constituencies that exist in the capital’s suburbs there could be a big bonus for the party that focuses on providing better and fairer public transport there.

Paul Wheeler writes about local politics. Follow Paul on Twitter. Gorgeous map of travel zones by Alasdair Rae.

On London strives to provide more of the kind of  journalism the capital city needs. Become a supporter for just £5 a month. You will even get things for your money. Learn more here.

Categories: Comment


  1. Silenos says:

    I doubt the original scheme was based on socialist disapproval of rich outer boroughs – after all, Kensington is in Zone 1. Surely it’s more likely, given the hub-and-spoke design of most of our public transport, that it was based on the idea that those who travel further across London should pay more – this is, after all, the basis on which most of the country’s transport systems operate.

    Given the initial reluctance of the train operators to take part in the Travelcard scheme, zoning may have been the only way to get them on board, and the same objection would still apply to any attempt to make all of London one zone – the train operators aren’t going to be happy if you can get on at South Croydon and off at Hadley Wood, say, for the same price as getting on at South Croydon and off at East Croydon. Unless that price is very high indeed, which is going to penalise those only travelling within an outer borough.

  2. bosman says:

    i commend Paul Wheeler,i raised this issue several years ago as it creates a rich man poor man culture
    despite preaching about leveling up , every move in my borough Haringey is all about leveling down.

    just as more and more youngsters want to live in posh zone 1
    the same applies to local boroughs in london

    within the boroughs are hidden zones
    n8 , n6 . n10 are exempt from licensing because the affluent residents objected to it.

    likewise, with ulez the poorer wards like bowes park cannot use their mk2 but in n10 you can ulez only applies to the poor man wards.within the local authority.

    social housng is never built in the n10.n6 or n4 wards by haringey
    The Next Mayor has to come from a neutral political background and then we will see selective licencing and ulez as an all or nothing policy to truly level up the economy in these pockets of injustice.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *