Overworked and underpaid

The millions of passengers place a huge burden on London's public transport system, which is cripple

London is characterised by its transport system probably more than any other city. The famous roundel logo embodies the essence of the capital, and is used to attract tourists who go away full of praise for the system. To Londoners, however, transport is a constant source of complaint. The roads are clogged; the Tube is overcrowded and stifling; the buses seem never to come, and when they do, they come in threes.

In a way, both images are true. London does have a very comprehensive public transport system, which has benefited from increased investment in recent years. But the results of past underinvestment will take many more years to overcome. That and the long-term failure of imagination in both central and local government have left London seriously lacking in basic transport infrastructure. Moreover, London's population is growing rapidly, putting extra pressure on what does exist. Transport for London (TfL) reckons there will be 800,000 more people in the capital by 2016, increasing public transport use by nearly 40 per cent, irrespective of any other factors.

No Underground line was built under central London between 1907 and 1968, and since then only two have been completed, the Victoria and Jubilee. Yet demand for the Tube has soared. With almost 950 million users every year, the network is overstretched. After taking office in 1997, the Labour government was quick to realise that the Tube needed investment. Refusing to break with Tory public spending plans, it looked for a way of involving the private sector. The result was the battle over the public-private partnership (PPP) that has so dominated discussion of investment in London's transport ever since.

The PPP was a bizarre, experimental concept. The system was split into four: three private infrastructure companies (though two contracts went to the same company, Metronet), each responsible for the track, signalling and rolling stock on three or four lines; and an operator, London Underground, in turn controlled by TfL, the Mayor's transport arm. The Mayor, Ken Livingstone, opposed the scheme and sought instead to be allowed to raise investment money through bonds. But the government drove through the PPP, even though much of the original reasoning behind it fell by the wayside. For example, the idea was initially promoted because it did not require any public subsidy, but the infrastructure companies (known as "infracos") now receive £1bn a year from the taxpayer. While Londoners will undoubtedly see some benefits from the huge amounts being spent, the PPP is a complex and expensive way of funding infrastructure that is unlikely to be value for money.

That is certainly what London Underground's managing director, Tim O'Toole, seems to think. In the foreword to a report on the first year of the PPP, published on 17 June, he said: "The scope of work of the PPP is primarily driven by financial incentives intended to reward or penalise the infracos based upon actual system performance, and the efficacy of this quite experimental system is unproven in the world of urban rail transport." And a National Audit Office report on the PPP published on the same day was as damning as such reports are. It said there was only "limited assurance" that the price of the multibillion-pound contracts was "reasonable", and that the deals "offer the prospect, but not the certainty, that improvements will be delivered". So Londoners cannot be sure that the vast amounts of public money going into the contracts each year will give them a better system. The report certainly provides powerful evidence backing Livingstone's case against the PPP.

Despite the huge payments to the infracos, the PPP contracts do not involve the construction of new lines. In terms of rail services, there are three major projects that have been around for years, even decades: Crossrail, a tunnel linking the rail networks of Paddington and Liverpool Street; the East London Line, which involves extending the current mini line to Highbury and Croydon with a spur to Clapham Junction; and Thameslink 2000, which aims to boost the capacity of the most heavily used commuter service.

However, all of these projects - together with Crossrail 2, the scheme that used to be the Chelsea to Hackney Tube line - are on hold awaiting approval by the Treasury, which is looking for some sort of private sector involvement. The Prime Minister, Tony Blair, has repeatedly said that Crossrail is essential, and yet, for seven years, he has failed to commit his government to the scheme. Thameslink 2000 seems at a complete standstill - even though, when Railtrack was privatised a decade ago, the price was reduced supposedly to allow the privatised company to fund the scheme. Following a planning inquiry, certain aspects of the scheme had to be redesigned, which the government seems to have taken as an excuse to sit on it, apparently indefinitely.

Meanwhile, under the new Eurostar terminal at St Pancras Station, a "box" is being built for the expanded Thameslink services. It is a mystery how long it will remain a ghost station, just minutes away from the chaos of King's Cross Thameslink. The extension of the East London Line, which has also sat mouldering on a government desk for years, is the project most likely to go ahead any time soon, but only if TfL can push it forward.

The capital is therefore un-likely to benefit from any major new rail infrastructure before the end of the decade. Currently, apart from some preliminary work on the East London Line, the only large-scale scheme on which construction has started is the Docklands Light Railway extension to City Airport, which is due to open next year, and the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, which will allow fast trains from Kent to St Pancras. Even more minor improvements are unlikely. TfL is promoting a variety of smaller-scale schemes, but these, too, are expensive.

As for roads, the days of attempting to build a motorway through the capital are over. There were two major attempts to do so, in the 1970s and 1980s, but both foundered in the face of huge opposition. Livingstone has managed to obtain the agreement in principle for a major river crossing in east London, linking Barking and Thamesmead, but the scheme's cost (estimated at £400m) and unpopularity have put this, too, in doubt. Improved management of existing roads, rather than the construction of new ones, seems the only feasible option.

Frustrated over the PPP and painfully aware of the costs of major new infrastructure, Livingstone has instead focused on two areas where he felt he could make a difference - buses and the introduction of the congestion charge to motorists in central London. Buses, generally seen as an unglamorous form of transport, have been neglected by transport planners in the past. But Livingstone has poured money into the service, introducing new routes and modern buses, notably the double-length bendy ones that are much easier to get on and off than the old double-deckers. (They also had a slight tendency to burst into flames, but that has now been remedied.)

The idea was to make a rapid improvement to public transport, and it seems to have worked. The number of people using buses has soared from 3.7 million to 5.7 million a day, and on some days has even reached six million - more than in the postwar period when private cars were rare. This growth has been achieved by improvements in the service and keeping fares low, and therefore at a high cost. There is not enough in TfL's budget to continue the current level of service, let alone maintain the rate of expansion. The subsidy required for buses will reach £1bn within four years.

In most countries, this would not be a problem: if you want a good transport service, you have to pay for it. In Britain, however, subsidy is considered a problem, and the government, with Livingstone's re-election as Mayor, now faces something of a dilemma. Probably there will be a fudge, with Livingstone forced to raise fares but provided with a bit of extra cash by the government. With a few exceptions - for example, in Brighton and Leeds - bus use has declined outside the capital, and the government may see some advantage in encouraging the now Labour Mayor in his efforts to boost public transport. Sure, London's bus service still leaves something to be desired, but there is no doubt that it has helped to plug the gap left in the transport system by years of underinvestment, particularly in outer-London areas.

Livingstone's other great, albeit controversial, achievement has been the congestion charge. It has been successful not only in making the centre of London a more pleasant place but, more importantly, in showing that it is to some extent possible to control the never-ending growth of private motorised traffic. Its success has been such that it even paved the way for Livingstone's re-entry into the Labour Party, with Blair giving him credit for its introduction. That is not to say there haven't been problems with the scheme, one being that its success in reducing traffic in central London has resulted in less revenue than expected.Nevertheless, Livingstone is consulting over whether to extend the scheme into west London. The benefits seem to be marginal, because there will be more residents who pay only 10 per cent of the charge, but the Mayor is keen, and it will be one of the big issues of his second term.

Apart from underinvestment, the big failing of the capital's transport system is the lack of co-ordination between the various services, in particular the train and the Tube. Most cities have a co-ordinating body that determines investment priorities and ensures integration between the different modes of transport. London has never had such an authority. When London Transport was created in 1933, there was a plan for suburban rail services to be included in its remit, but the then private companies protested. Today, a new generation of private rail companies are causing problems.

If anything illustrates the capital's need for a single transport authority, it is the Oyster card, which was introduced at the beginning of the year. This is a £1bn system allowing passengers to make a variety of journeys using the same card, which does not even have to be taken out of its wallet. For example, it can be used to make a one-off journey on the Tube or a bus, or count as a Travelcard for multiple journeys, or be a weekly or monthly pass. There have been a few teething problems, most of them temporary technical difficulties. But there is a more intractable problem, which is that the card can only be used for journeys on London's rail network in limited circumstances - if you have used it to buy a Travelcard or on 15 particular routes. On all other routes, you cannot use the Pre Pay version of the card. That is because the train companies do not want to pay for the equipment to be installed - as short-term franchisees, they fear they may not get a return on their investment. TfL has paid for some equipment, but it is in discussions with the operators over how to extend the system. As a result, the rules governing Oyster are unfathomably complicated.

TfL is hoping that, under the rail review, it will be given more powers over the rail network. Initially it lobbied to become the franchising authority for London, letting out train services in an area stretching from the south coast to Milton Keynes. However, given that this was very unlikely to win over ministers, it has toned down its plans and is now seeking a much more limited remit. In its submission to the rail review, TfL has made a series of proposals that would give it extra powers, ranging from more control over the timetable for suburban services to responsibility for major projects and improvements. The government is not unsympathetic, and a draft of the review suggests that TfL may be given the power to vary service levels or fares and that there should be a single decision-making body.

There are many ways in which a more co-ordinated approach would help. For example, if TfL were in charge of all timetables, it could link Underground and suburban rail services in such a way as to encourage people to make better use of the ring of interchanges in outer London - such as Stratford and Finsbury Park - which would free up capacity at the city's main-line termini.

This is eminently sensible stuff, but how it would work in practice is unclear. What is certain is that Londoners will face the problems arising from the history of their transport system for many years to come.

Christian Wolmar is author of Down the Tube (Aurum), an assessment of the PPP. His latest book, The Subterranean Railway, a social history of the Tube, will be published in November by Atlantic Books. See www.christianwolmar.co.uk

Next Article