A 24-hour Tube doesn't make 750 job losses any better

It's hard not to see the prospect of all-night Tube parties as a distraction from the larger issue of budget cuts to the capital's transport network.

Rarely has a transport announcement caused such joy, but Londoners - long jealous of their New York City cousins across the pond - are finally getting a 24-hour Tube service. It's only on Fridays and Saturdays, and it's only on five lines (well, four-and-a-half, technically), but this is big news.

The night bus, those post-midnight caravels that weave their way through the streets of pre-dawn London, will no longer be one of the defining experiences of the city's nightlife.

The choice of lines to stay open is a curious one, apparently justified because of signalling and train upgrades that will make all-night operation possible by 2015. Still, it's clearly a move that is aimed at the West End - those lines all go through there, and it's the Northern line's Bank branch (which goes along the edge of Shoreditch, another nightlife centre) that misses out. More lines may begin all-night operation over the years, subject to a range of factors, Transport for London has said.

It's not all good news, though. TfL will be closing every single ticket office across the Tube network, with the loss of 750 jobs. That's a huge cut, and directly contradicts Boris Johnson's 2008 manifesto pledge to stop any ticket office closures.

The justification, according to TfL, is that there will still be at least one member of staff in every station that is open at all times. However, they're going to be given "the latest mobile technology" (read: iPads with WiFi) so they can keep an eye on things no matter where they are in the station. For some stations, this could be fine; for others, especially those in busy tourist areas - where everyone will be expected to buy their tickets from machines - it could be much worse. There will be six "information centres" kept open in the six busiest tube stations (Waterloo, Victoria, King's Cross-St Pancras, Oxford Circus, London Bridge, Liverpool Street) but that's your lot.

Night buses can be frightening places, especially for women. The thought of taking that experience underground, alone, in a large station with only one person on duty to offer help if needed, is a cause for concern. The RMT has made it clear that it considers these staffing changes a threat to passenger safety; ironically, considering Boris Johnson's determination to switch the Tube to driverless trains as a way to prevent strikes, the extra night trains will probably mean new drivers will be hired, increasing the RMT's leverage.

There are also changes to how tickets work. TfL is already phasing out cash payments for bus tickets and has introduced compatibility with contactless debit and credit cards, and a similar push is being made with the Underground. For most people this makes sense, as the changes will make it so that there's a daily and weekly cap on how much your card is charged to create de facto travelcards. While there are no plans to get rid of Oyster, it's clearly not going to be around forever. This creates problems of accessibility for that significant minority who will find it harder to pay for their journeys, either because they haven't got a bank account with which to get a contactless card, or who find using ticket machines difficult.

It's very hard not to see the announcement of a 24-hour Tube as a way of drowning out the large job losses and controversial changes to how transport in London will work. There's a big hole in TfL's budget thanks to a £225m drop in funding from central government, and two main tools to combat that are above-inflation fare rises (check) and staff cuts (check) - these plans, as announced, will save £270m for TfL in operation costs over five years.

Quite a lot of that funding gap would have been covered by not doing things like building a crap cable car or commissioning a pointless custom-built bus, but it's too late now. Oh well.

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Now listen to Ian discussing this with Helen Lewis on the NS Podcast:

 

The new 24-hour Night Tube, as it'll work from 2015. (Image: TfL)

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.