Government demands to cut an extra £400 million from Transport for London budgets, which were introduced during eleventh-hour negotiations last month over further funding for the beleaguered network, had been a “bridge too far”, TfL commissioner Andy Byford said yesterday.
Updating the London Assembly’s transport committee on the outcome of protracted discussions with Whitehall – which eventually concluded with new funding agreed until 24 June this year – Byford confirmed it was his refusal to sign up to the new cuts which had led to the delay in reaching a deal.
“I said I can’t do that,” Byford told Assembly members. “To be absolutely frank and blunt, it would have been reckless to agree to it. I couldn’t agree to something that was unachievable.”
It was a rare insight into the hard-fought nature of TfL’s wrangling with the government over Covid bailout support, which Byford said had now put the network within touching distance of balancing its books by the agreed target date of April next year.
The £400m figure is still in the deal, but downgraded to a “plan demonstrating options” after taking inflationary pressures into account. And, crucially, as well as recognising that TfL will need more revenue support over the rest of 2022/23, the government has agreed to discuss capital funding for up to three years, with initial proposals due on the table next week.
“This is the big one, the Holy Grail,” said Byford. “Along with revenue support to the end of April, that will enable us to say we’ve sorted out TfL’s finances post-Covid.” It would be a “huge achievement,” he added.
A boost to capital investment would put currently delayed big-ticket improvements back on track, including upgrading Piccadilly Line signalling, decarbonising the capital’s 9,500 buses, replacing the 50-year-old trains on the Bakerloo Line, tackling crumbling flyovers, and even a further TfL takeover of suburban rail commuter lines.
TfL was now pitching for a minimum three-year capital funding deal, plus a “comfort letter” from government on future funding, Byford said, “so everyone knows we are not about to pull the plug on contracts.”
Piloting TfL towards sustainable post-pandemic recovery and getting Crossrail finished were the twin top priorities for Byford, a veteran transport boss with a track record running public transit in Sydney, Toronto and New York before he moved to London in the summer of 2020.
But the network still faced significant challenges, Byford warned the committee, with the capital paying a long-term £500,000 to £1 billion a year price in return for capital funding in savings, inflation-busting fares increases, Council Tax hikes and new ultra-low emission zone charges. A 10-week consultation on expanding the ULEZ to the whole of London is due to start in May.
Possible impacts on staff terms and conditions, including pension reform, are already prompting industrial action, while TfL’s “managed decline” scenario of service cuts, described by Byford as a “wholesale butchering of routes”, could still result if long-term funding can’t be agreed. TfL is also obliged to continue work on plans for so-called “driverless trains”, and is still subject to detailed day-to-day Whitehall oversight.
Fundamental questions remained too over ridership numbers, Byford said, with Whitehall requiring a wide-ranging review of demand on the network next month “to inform future service level requirements and potential changes”.
While weekend travel was recovering, with last Saturday seeing bus ridership at 89 per cent of pre-Covid levels and Tube ridership at 81 per cent, last Monday’s Tube figure was at only 59 per cent of its 2019 peak as working from home persisted.
“Is this a permanent shift?” asked Byford. “We don’t know, but we are already seeing more travel around sub-regional centres, consistent with ‘15-minute neighbourhood’ ideas. We may yet end up having to recast the transport offer, with less intensive services in central London, offsetting that with more services in the outer ring.”
There was good news on Crossrail, though, with the commissioner reporting that the long-awaited Elizabeth Line service was moving rapidly towards completion in line with his pledge on taking control of the project in October 2020. “I can confirm absolutely that we remain on track to open the central section by 30 June 2022,” he said, adding that a date for opening the line to passengers would be announced shortly.
Bond Street station, the last on the new route awaiting completion, was now just three months behind schedule compared to 18 months behind when TfL took over, he said, though project managers still faced a “tough ask” in keeping to the £825 million currently allocated to finish the £19 billion scheme.
TfL was also facing challenges in getting housing development underway around Tube stations, Byford said, with Covid-induced delays, planning permission refused on five schemes for 1,200 homes in all, and last week’s unprecedented intervention by transport secretary Grant Shapps to block 351 new homes at Cockfosters in order to save the station’s car park.
“Ninety-six per cent of users pass an alternative train station on the way to parking their car at Cockfosters, and we felt that was a reason to proceed,” Byford said. “We are seeking to understand better the rationale behind that decision.”
The transport committee meeting can be viewed in full here.
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