Labour's mayoral candidate is promising to freeze tube, train and bus fares in cash terms until 2020 if he's elected next year. Sadiq Khan has been reiterating his campaign pledge ahead of the expected announcement of next year's fares.
The row over fares dominated the 2012 election, and all we can ask at this point is: how are we here again? Transport for London argued last time that freezing fares would seriously affect upgrade work and new infrastructure, and the financial situation is even more precarious now. TfL is funded from a variety of sources: fares currently make up 40% of its income, and there's also a grant from central government. Here are the numbers for that grant over the past few years:
- 2013-14 £1,091m
- 2014-15 £835m
- 2015-16 £659m
Funding levels have only been agreed up to the end of the financial year 2015-16 — i.e. next April. It's expected that the chancellor's autumn statement will contain news for TfL but, with the Department for Transport having agreed a 30% cut in spending, that news is unlikely to be good. For Khan's campaign to say he knows what he'd do with fares before he even knows how much money he'd have is foolhardy at best.
We spoke to respected transport journalist Christian Wolmar when he was campaigning to be Labour's mayoral candidate. Even after navigating TfL's labyrinthine budget, the assessment of Wolmar and Tony Travers, another acknowledged expert on London's government, is that there just isn't the money. Wolmar told us:
There is £1.5bn or £2bn in there; Tony Travers has talked to TfL and they say it’s absolutely necessary for future investment needs, it’s earmarked. I think it would enable us to freeze fares for a year and we could play with it — we might be able to freeze fares for two years or, more importantly, we could cut the extra 40p, 50p increases you pay for each zone. But even if it is £1.5bn, £2bn that’s in there, it’s not enough to freeze fares for four years. It just isn’t.
Khan's campaign says the money can be found by efficiency savings within TfL. We're highly sceptical; even closing all the ticket offices and cutting around 830 jobs will only save about 6% of what TfL needs to find, according to the RMT. Labour also points to Stephen Greenhalgh, the current deputy mayor for policing and crime who bid to be the Tory mayoral candidate partly on the basis of cutting fares by 3%. That was a ludicrous promise then and it remains so now. Labour do themselves no favours by using it as an example.
So if fares really are to be frozen, with TfL's grant income falling, what could be the effects? We can foresee a combination of some or all of the following:
- Slowing down of upgrade works — would cover signalling, new trains, accessibility etc
- Cancellation of some upgrade works
- Cuts to services — buses are generally where the axe has fallen in the past
- Cuts to staffing levels
- More advertising and sponsorship on the networks
- More sales of TfL land to private developers
- More space at stations given over to shops and other businesses
We all want cheaper fares. That's obvious. But in the current political climate you can't peg fares to below inflation and not expect consequences. So, London: what's it to be?