A Victoria line train. Photo: Wikicommons
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Lessons transit authorities shouldn't be learning from TfL

Like "fare hikes are a good thing". 

On Monday, the US website CityLab ran an interview with Shashi Verma, director of customer experience at Transport for London, under the headline “5 Lessons US Transit Systems Should Learn from London”. The gist of the piece was that running the transport system like a for-profit private company was the best best thing to happen to Londoners since Boris Bikes or sliced bread, and those in the US should be green with envy.

Tonight at 8pm, London Underground power workers from three different unions are due to stage an eight-day walkout in protest against working conditions and pensions plans. While this doesn’t necessarily contradict everything Verma said, it does at least highlight the downside of a (his words) “relentless push” to increase revenue and lower operating costs.

There are aspects of TfL’s £50m restructuring plan, announced last November, that impress: 24-hour weekend services and the possibility of unmanned trains are the biggies. But Verma’s attempt to portray the closure of ticket offices as a positive, rather than something that’s caused widespread protest from staff and passengers alike, is little more than spin.

What’s even odder is his success in re-framing constant inflation-busting fare rises as A Good Thing. The CityLab piece names “Make fare increases routine” as an apt lesson for US Transit authorities, explaining:

There are loud objections over there just as there are here, but the critical difference is that TfL has set an expectation in the minds of travellers, not to mention politicians, that fares must rise on an annual basis.”

Londoners may be rather less convinced that this is a lesson worth exporting. This graph pits consumer price inflation against the percentage year-on-year rise of the price of a single cash ticket (that is, those not paid for via the Oyster automated ticketing system) within zones 1-4. (We know most commuters don't pay cash fares, but due to the Oyster's short history they're the most easily comparable figures.) 

 

Two big rises – of a pound each, in 2007 and 2011 – account for most of the overall increase. If you stack those percentage rises on top of each other, the concession to a minimal, inflation-level rise for this year doesn’t look so impressive. The CityLab piece applauds London's gradual fare increases, as opposed to US Transit Authorities' tactic of holding off until fares take a big jump, but this graph shows that this isn't always the case. We’ve gone from £3 for a single in zones 1-4 in 2004 to £5.70 in 2014. And, last week, the National Union for Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) claimed that fares will rise another 24 per cent by the end of the decade; that’s over a third faster than the expected rise in earnings.

Don’t get us wrong – some of TfL’s flashy improvements, such as those fancy screens on bus stops or contactless paymens, are great. And it would be handy to get the tube home after a messy night out in Camden.

But the story’s just a little bit more complicated than Shashi Verma would like to make out. Contrary to what he might like American transport bosses to think, Londoners are not exactly delighted with the tube, either. 

This is a preview of our new sister publication, CityMetric. We'll be launching its website soon - in the meantime, you can follow it on Twitter and Facebook.

Barbara Speed was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric in 2014-16.

Photo: Getty
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The big problem for the NHS? Local government cuts

Even a U-Turn on planned cuts to the service itself will still leave the NHS under heavy pressure. 

38Degrees has uncovered a series of grisly plans for the NHS over the coming years. Among the highlights: severe cuts to frontline services at the Midland Metropolitan Hospital, including but limited to the closure of its Accident and Emergency department. Elsewhere, one of three hospitals in Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland are to be shuttered, while there will be cuts to acute services in Suffolk and North East Essex.

These cuts come despite an additional £8bn annual cash injection into the NHS, characterised as the bare minimum needed by Simon Stevens, the head of NHS England.

The cuts are outlined in draft sustainability and transformation plans (STP) that will be approved in October before kicking off a period of wider consultation.

The problem for the NHS is twofold: although its funding remains ringfenced, healthcare inflation means that in reality, the health service requires above-inflation increases to stand still. But the second, bigger problem aren’t cuts to the NHS but to the rest of government spending, particularly local government cuts.

That has seen more pressure on hospital beds as outpatients who require further non-emergency care have nowhere to go, increasing lifestyle problems as cash-strapped councils either close or increase prices at subsidised local authority gyms, build on green space to make the best out of Britain’s booming property market, and cut other corners to manage the growing backlog of devolved cuts.

All of which means even a bigger supply of cash for the NHS than the £8bn promised at the last election – even the bonanza pledged by Vote Leave in the referendum, in fact – will still find itself disappearing down the cracks left by cuts elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.