I took a vow long ago to never again attempt to use the Central Line during the morning peak. Things were so bad at Bethnal Green that westbound passengers were actually catching eastbound trains to stations where the westbound crush was less extreme rather than wait at the westbound platform for four, five and six rammed trains to go by before standing a chance of squeezing on to one.
Last Friday I forgot my vow and tried to get to Holborn from Liverpool Street for a 9:00 am appointment. Five westbound trains came and went before I gave up, left the station and walked to Holborn instead. It was a sobering reminder that I am lucky to work from home and that many, many thousands go through the Central Line ordeal every day.
In light of that experience it’s almost a relief to recall that use of the Tube has been falling for the first time in many years. But, of course, it might not be good news for the city as a whole. The same goes for the recent drop in passenger numbers on most suburban rail services in and out of the capital and the decline in bus ridership since 2014/15. High and rising public transport use has long been regarded as a sign of London’s economic health and the triumph of its mass transit modes over the private car. What do these interruptions in long-term upward public transport trends mean?
In the case of the bus service, the drop has been attributed by Transport for London to general road traffic congestion problems arising largely from aspects of London’s continuing expansion rather than it being a symptom of looming decline. A growing population placing more pressure on roads and the disruption caused by large construction projects are often cited.
But the falls in different forms of public transport use have been put down to a number of different factors. For example, Alex Jan, director of Arup’s city economics team, saw the falling Tube figures as a sign that Brexit is already hurting London’s economy. The LSE’s Tony Travers, a friend of this website, said on the Sunday Politics yesterday that all of these declines could be due in varying ways and degrees to factors as diverse as changing work habits and strikes and other problems on the Southern rail service. TfL commissioner Mike Brown said similar things at City Hall earlier this month and also that an immediate reduction in the numbers of people making “discretionary trips” on the Tube took place after last year’s terror attacks.
And so we have a mix of suspects for recent shifts in patterns of public transport use. What is clearer is that these have major implications for TfL’s budgets which are unlikely to go away in a hurry. Not that everyone expresses agreement about how Sadiq Khan’s transport policies are affecting this. His political opponents argue that his freeze on TfL fares is directly to blame for parts of the transport investment programme being delayed. However, Brown said there is “increasing and very real evidence” that the freeze has meant the passenger decrease is less than it would otherwise have been.
What isn’t in dispute is that income from fares, which TfL depends on for close to half of its income, is expected to be £900m less in the coming year than was projected two years ago. Whatever you blame for it, that is a big drop and a big concern.
The opening of the Elizabeth Line (Crossrail) towards the end of this year will create a welcome new revenue source, and that will help. But any temptation on the part of crushed Central Line passengers to hope that a combination of the new service and falling Tube use overall will soon release them from their sardine experience should be resisted.
Predictions can be perilous, but one made in 2013 by Brown’s predecessor as TfL chief, Sir Peter Hendy, still looks pretty sound. “When Crossrail opens it will be immediately full,” he said. But he added that anyone who thought this would mean “we’ll be able to sit down on the Central Line in the rush hour will be wrong”.
Tony Travers’ contribution to the Sunday Politics in London can be viewed from about the 50 minute point via here.