In an open letter to passengers, the mayor and Transport for London have committed themselves to a 24-hour Tube service. It’s an exciting announcement, and will undoubtedly deliver a boost to London’s £8bn a year dining and entertainment industry. But there are wider implications for the capital.
For decades, the Underground has run New Year’s Eve “all-nighters”, but the plan almost certainly means that regular all-night running will happen for the first time ever. Initially limited to five lines, and beginning in 2015, Friday and Saturday operations could grow to cover more of the network and eventually Thursday nights.
The changes would do more than make life easier for revellers, however. They would mark a dramatic achievement for City Hall and Tube bosses. For decades, central government and then the first mayor wrestled with unions, engineers and complex public-private partnership contracts to get all-night running on the network. A host of reasons were lined up to say why this was not possible or unaffordable. Then came the Olympics.
London’s transport system worked efficiently to deliver record volumes of passengers, and the Tube ran longer and started earlier. Londoners seized on these achievements. What if the energy of the Olympics could be harnessed for delivering public services for London on a regular basis?
Improvements to Tube service are certainly pressing. Official projections show London’s population is growing by 2,000 every eight days. Over the next ten years or so, the city’s headcount will grow by a number equivalent to the population of Birmingham. Getting more out of our existing infrastructure is essential to keeping London competitive and keeping its economy thriving. It will help us compete in a global race with cities like Berlin, Paris and New York.
But to keep up with demand, city leaders should go further. Mayoral control over suburban rail, quiet out-of-hours deliveries, improved shopping streets, diesel-free taxis and further improvements for cyclists are a few ideas that come to mind. Running bus and Tube services on Christmas Day is another. No other multicultural world city shuts its transport system down the way London does.
Delivering these initiatives will require investment and control by local politicians. Permitting the mayor and London’s councils to keep a greater proportion of the capital’s taxes would allow more projects to be funded and services to be improved. Londoners would be able to enjoy the benefits that growth brings, and authorities would have the resources to deal with more of the pressures.
Alongside congestion charges, the cycle hire scheme and delivering the Olympics, a 24-hour Tube is a testament to London devolution. Ministers should now go further and be bold with city finance reform. As the London Finance Commission recommended, Whitehall should let Londoners and their leaders have more financial freedom to improve the capital's fabric. We may then see more of the improvements vital for a thriving city, that increasingly doesn’t want to sleep.