It could be almost 2030 before Underground, bus and rail ridership in the capital return to pre-pandemic levels, according to Transport for London. And with Tube ridership currently at around 30% of previous levels, even getting back to 80% – the total assumed in TfL budget plans now being considered by Sadiq Khan – would take up to two years.
The grim forecasts, presented to yesterday’s London Assembly budget and performance committee, underline both the tough choices facing TfL in the New Year when further talks with Whitehall on future funding will begin, and its continuing reliance on government cash.
Budget estimates for the stricken network, dependent on fares for almost three-quarters of its revenue, suggest further bailouts of up to £3.1 billion next year and £1.8 billion the year after will be needed.
Even with government support, a Council Tax hike, a permanent extension of Congestion Charge hours and levels and even cuts to services were all on the table, the committee was told, particularly to pay for free travel for under-18s and Londoners aged 60 to 65, which the government is refusing to fund.
An 11 January deadline has been set by transport secretary Grant Shapps for Khan to come up with his own proposals. “The Mayor had been clear that he wants to retain these existing concessions,” said City Hall transport deputy Heidi Alexander. “He has not made a decision yet on where the income will come from.”
Congestion Charge increases introduced as a condition of TfL’s initial £1.6 million bailout in May were part of the emergency response to the pandemic and could not be made permanent without a formal review and public consultation, likely to take place in early summer, she confirmed.
Khan has already signalled that an initial £1.59 increase in Council Tax could end up higher after negotiations with the government, and a 2.6% inflation-busting fare increase from March was conceded in the second TfL bailout. A small paring back of service levels would also be considered, TfL finance chief Simon Kilonback said, with the Bakerloo Line being looked at first for possible weekend and off-peak reductions.
The 11 January 11 deadline also applies to a plan for break-even “financial stability” by 2023, “excluding government grant” and including savings of at least £722 million and capital spending focused on “safety and good repair” – heralding more fraught negotiations in the New Year.
To reach self-sufficiency soon quickly was a “big ask”, said TfL commissioner Andy Byford, while Alexander warned the government, with negotiations taking place in the run-up to the May 2021 mayoral election, to avoid “political game-playing”. Independent experts commissioned by Khan warned last week that achieving sustainable funding without government support would take till the mid-2020s.
Byford poured cold water on proposals to save money by running driverless trains, which TfL is required to consider as a bailout condition. Requirements for new trains, improved signalling and extra safety measures, plus winning public approval, meant any plan “would take around a decade and cost literally billions,” he said.
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