Concerns over 'abysmal' tram performance as Sadiq Khan admits service 'not good enough'

Concerns have been raised at City Hall over an “abysmal” level of service on London’s tram network in recent weeks.

A combination of strike action, engineering works and a shortage of trams have led to an “utterly unacceptable” lack of reliability for south London commuters, the Liberal Democrats have said.

In a letter to Transport for London (TfL) commissioner Andy Lord, the London Assembly’s Lib Dem group leader Hina Bokhari said the tram system had become “a service in crisis that is failing passengers”.

She also told Mr Lord that directors and senior officers responsible for running the trams should “not receive performance-related bonuses this year”.

It was reported earlier this month that about a dozen trams were taken out of service after “debris on the track” damaged the vehicles’ wheels.

TfL said at the time that it was uncertain what the debris was, but ruled out that it had been placed on the tracks as an act of vandalism.

Repairs to the damaged trams were delayed due to a strike by engineers, who were said by the union representing them, Unite, to be "angry" that their counterparts on the Tube are paid £10,000 more a year despite having the same level of training.

A further strike is planned from 8pm on Thursday July 11 until 6am on Monday July 15.

In her letter, Ms Bokhari said: “The knock-on effect of this is felt in our schools and businesses as classes are missed and meetings cancelled.

“Since the beginning of 2024 we have seen passengers on the New Addington & Elmers End branches effectively cut off with repeated line closures at extremely short notice.”

Speaking on his ‘Inside City Hall’ podcast, the Assembly’s Tory group leader Neil Garratt also said the issue had been “an absolute nightmare” for his constituents in Croydon.

Asked about the issue on Tuesday, London mayor Sadiq Khan said: “Sarah Jones, the local Member of Parliament [for Croydon Central], was in touch with me a couple of weeks ago, explaining to me the consequences of the debris being caught on the wheels, causing problems.

“My understanding, when I looked into this, was [that] the company that runs the trams took these trams out of service to repair the wheels, which were damaged by the debris.

“The good news is those trams are now back in circulation and when I checked yesterday [Monday], my understanding was a good service was running in Croydon.

“But I’ll be meeting again with Sarah Jones to discuss these issues, because it’s not good enough for the residents there. The tram is often, for many families, the only decent public transport they have. Many have had to wait a long time to get a decent tram.”

He added that TfL was working to ensure there is “proper maintenance, to make sure trams aren’t taken out of service”.

While TfL is responsible for specifying the trams’ frequency, fares and revenue, carrying out maintenance and funding improvements to the service, Tram Operations Limited - a subsidiary of First Group - is responsible for the actual day-to-day operation of the trams.

However, despite the mayor’s claim that the company took the decision to take the damaged trams out of service for maintenance, it was in fact TfL’s decision.

In her letter, Ms Bokhari asked if Mr Lord could confirm how TfL will “increase transparency” as to apparent delays in replacing some of the trams with newer models.

Hina Bokhari, Lib Dem group leader on the London Assembly (London Assembly)
Hina Bokhari, Lib Dem group leader on the London Assembly (London Assembly)

Many of the trams still in use on the network are the original vehicles - or ‘rolling stock’ - introduced when the service launched in 2000, which are now coming to the end of their lifespans.

Asked about delays, Mr Khan said: “I’m not sure about the rolling stock issue, but I’m happy to look into that. What I do know is we’re speaking to the company that runs the trams to make sure these sorts of issues don’t happen again.”

Trish Ashton, TfL’s director of rail and sponsored services, said: “We apologise to customers in south London affected by the issues that we have experienced with the London Trams network.

“We know that a reliable tram network is vital to those living and working in south London and we continue to work hard to provide that service.

“Customers have been impacted by shortages due to wheel damage but safety is our number one priority and the decision to remove the damaged trams from service was absolutely necessary to preserve customer safety.

“We have worked hard to restore a good service on the London Trams network as quickly as possible and are now serving all destinations.”

She added: “We have started the procurement process to replace the existing tram fleet, but the replacement is subject to securing suitable capital funding. We continue to work with Government to secure funding for this and for a number of other important projects.”