London’s transport struggles: Crossrail delays, a TfL cash crisis and Sadiq Khan’s backtrack on fares

Ross Lydall
·8-min read
<p>Khan’s 2016 manifesto vowed: “Londoners won’t pay a penny more for their travel in 2020 than they do today.”</p> (PA Wire)

Khan’s 2016 manifesto vowed: “Londoners won’t pay a penny more for their travel in 2020 than they do today.”

(PA Wire)

When Sadiq Khan came to power five years ago, the Tube was experiencing record passenger numbers, increased traffic was causing bus delays and Crossrail was only two and a half years from opening.

Such was the confidence in Crossrail that, a few months earlier, the Queen had been invited to Bond Street station to be told by the then mayor, Boris Johnson, that it would be renamed the Elizabeth line in her honour.

A picture of a delighted monarch clutching an image of the Elizabeth Line roundel, in regal purple, took pride of place in London transport commissioner Mike Brown’s report to the Transport for London board in March 2016.

“Construction remains on time and within the funding envelope of £14.8 billion,” he reassured members. “Overall, the project is more than 72 per cent complete.”

Crossrail, as Mr Khan was to discover two years later, half-way into his mayoralty, was in fact in a catastrophic condition.

A call had to be made to Buckingham Palace to cancel the opening ceremony, which the Queen should have performed on December 9, 2018. Several more have had to be made to the Department for Transport for additional funds.

The scheme’s total bill is now about £4 billion higher than budgeted, and the delay has grown to three and a half years. The official opening date is the first half of next year, despite the optimism of current TfL commissioner Andy Byford that the line under central London may yet open before the end of the year.

The delay has also deprived TfL of millions in fares. But according to transport expert Christian Wolmar, who has written a book about Crossrail, the failures were “not really down to the Mayor” who could not be expected to project manage it. However, the jury is out on whether Mr Khan should have had someone on the scheme who would have flagged up the problems sooner.

Mr Wolmar said: “You don’t expect the mayor to project-manage a scheme like this. On a day-to-day basis, clearly it’s way beyond what the mayor can oversee.

“But, having said that, I spent much of 2018 talking to various Crossrail heads of department and what is strange is that, right up until June and July, they were convinced that it would open on December 9, 2018.

“I still don’t understand how it was not conveyed to the mayor that this was not going to happen. It wasn’t until August [2018], four months before the opening, that it was finally revealed that the 2018 date was impossible.

“Should the mayor have somebody who was particularly au fait with the project, asking questions? When I went visiting the sites, there were 500 people at Paddington and there were wires everywhere. You would have thought somebody in charge would have asked some sharper questions at the time.”

The long-term impact, Mr Wolmar said, would be to worsen the chances of Crossrail 2 ever being built. It has already been shelved for a decade due to TfL’s financial crisis.

Getty Images
Getty Images

This began in 2018 when its operating grant from the Government ended. The problems were made £3 billion worse by the loss of fares due to the pandemic lockdowns. But the problems were partly of Mr Khan’s own making, too. The most prominent of his 40 manifesto pledges on transport was to “freeze London transport fares for four years”.

His 2016 manifesto vowed: “Londoners won’t pay a penny more for their travel in 2020 than they do today.”

It helped win him City Hall — but was only partly true. The promise was quickly scaled back to relate only to TfL pay-as-you-go fares. The cost of Travelcards continued to rise — as did the annual cap on multiple single journeys, which meant that most frequent travellers in fact paid more. His partial fares “freeze” cost TfL an estimated £640 million in lost income.

Professor Stephen Glaister, of Imperial College London, said the fares freeze, fewer bus passengers than hoped and the extent of travel concessions combined to deprive TfL of a sizeable chunk of income.

The Hopper ticket, which allows multiple journeys on the bus or tram within 60 minutes for a single fare, has also reduced TfL’s fares revenue.

“When Covid struck, the TfL budget was under considerable stress,” he said. “Another fact was that revenues on the Underground and buses were not growing as fast as had been budgeted for. Bus patronage had been falling for some time. The other thing which was becoming a worry was that, systematically since the start of the Greater London Authority in 2000, TfL had been borrowing. Its debts have risen from zero to about £13 billion.” Before taking office, Mr Khan described TfL as “inefficient and flabby”.

Under his administration, it has undergone repeated cuts — though an independent review by Professor Glaister and others said its generous pension scheme was “outdated and must be reformed”. Looking ahead, Professor Glaister predicted the number one transport issue in the next mayoral term would be TfL’s funding — starting with the need to conclude negotiations with the Government over a third Covid bail-out. The Centre for London think tank believes the issue of road use — and in particular whether to charge Londoners to use their cars — is crucial, both for the environment and TfL’s long-term income.

It has suggested scrapping the £15 congestion charge, the £12.50 ultra-low emission zone levy and the proposed £3.50 Greater London boundary charge and replace them with a single levy, applicable across all 33 boroughs, “based on distance travelled, type of vehicle, time of day, levels of congestion and availability of alternative travel options”.

Rob Whitehead, director of strategic projects at the Centre for London, said Mr Khan had been good at setting “big targets” — such as to increase the number of journeys walked, cycled or made on public transport from 64 per cent to 80 per cent by 2030. “The very ambitious carbon net zero target overarching that — trying to get to net zero by 2030 — is bold, and almost without parallel for a big city like London,” Mr Whitehead said.

But London under Mr Khan had been less good at “embracing innovation”, from ride-hailing apps such as Uber to e-scooters. A trial of rental e-scooters in about a third of boroughs is still awaiting the go-ahead.

Mr Khan inherited plans for the Night Tube, which Mr Johnson had been unable to open in September 2015 due to the Tube unions playing hardball over staff wages. Mr Khan was all smiles when he rode the first Night Tube service, on the Victoria line, in August 2016.

He was also gifted two outstanding pieces of cycle infrastructure, the North-South and East-West superhighways, the latter along the Embankment opened by Mr Johnson in his last day as mayor.

He extended both routes and added others but failed to deliver cycle schemes of the same scale or vision.

He has shown an inability to resolve problems that come “out of the blue”, such as the closure of Hammersmith bridge.

His Tory rival Shaun Bailey says the correct approach would have been to spend £140m to fix the bridge as soon as problems emerged, and then argue about the bill afterwards. Instead TfL and Hammersmith and Fulham council have spent two years seeking Government help, and the bridge may not reopen until 2025.

Mr Khan promised to “maintain the congestion charge at its current level” but increased it from £11.50 to £15, while extending its hours into the evening and weekend, under the terms of TfL’s first Covid bail-out from the Government.

His support for a second runway at Gatwick and opposition to a third runway at Heathrow was rendered academic by the virtual ban on air travel.

But he avoided “vanity schemes” seen under Mr Johnson, such as the Emirates cable car, the 1,000 “Boris bus” Routemasters or the proposed Garden bridge, which he abandoned soon after taking office.

Many pledges in Mr Khan’s 2016 manifesto fell victim to the pandemic. These include the Bakerloo line extension to Lewisham and beyond.

But nine months before lockdown, the Rotherhithe to Canary Wharf cycle and pedestrian bridge was ditched for financial reasons.

The “pausing” of the bridge went down especially badly as it coincided with progress on the highly-controversial £2bn-plus Silvertown road tunnel, over which he has faced unrelenting opposition from campaigners and critics in his own party.

What is unarguable is that more segregated cycle lanes would have been built with borough support. Kensington and Chelsea council blocked schemes in Holland Park Avenue and on High Street Kensington. Westminster council went to court to stop the CS11 cycle superhighway from Swiss Cottage and refused to allow the part-pedestrianisation of Oxford Street.

Mr Khan’s re-election will bring a major expansion of the Ulez, taking it to the boundaries of the North and South Circular zones on October 25.

The central London Ulez was introduced barely without controversy in April 2019, 17 months earlier than Boris Johnson’s initial schedule.

“Perhaps his boldest move has been bringing forward the Ulez implementation — though it’s both very radical and also probably not radical enough,” Mr Whitehead said. “It’s not sufficient for dealing with the twin crises of air pollution and carbon emissions.”

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