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13 November 2015

Free rail for the under-11s? There are other ways to make London transport fairer

Why the obsession with giving children free stuff?

By Barbara Speed

Boris Johnson has announced a new deal with London rail operators which would let under-11s travel for free when they’re with a paying adult. 

In lots of ways, the move makes sense. Under-11s already get free transport across London’s Tube and bus networks, plus selected train lines. In fact, the exception of some rail services was creating a north/south inequality: there are more Underground services north of the river, and more rail lines to the south. This effectively meant that families south of the river were shouldering a greater financial burden while travelling similar distances.

This map shows lines where under-11s can travel for free (green) and lines where they currently pay:

Image: TfL via the BBC.

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The move, which comes into effect on 2 January, will cost TfL around £500,000 a year. Meanwhile, though, it’s hoping to make an additional £43m this year from increases to adult ticket prices, including an increase on season tickets of under 1 per cent (so they don’t surpass inflation), and increases to zone 1 and 2 single fares. None of the fare raises are extortionate, but as Labour London Assembly member for transport Val Shawcross pointed out, Johnson pledged at the beginning of his mayoralty to cut fares – and has instead overseen an overall increase of 40 per cent. 

Considering TfL is looking at £43m in increased revenues next year, the free fares for under-11s don’t seem hugely expensive. But in the context of a transport system that’s unfair in lots of ways, it’s also an easy way to score with voters without actually tackling the big problems. The free fares are a little reminiscent of the Liberal Democrats’ free school meals for all policy. No one will argue with free stuff for children, even when it’s a blanket policy that doesn’t take means testing into account, and doesn’t help those who use London’s transport the most – commuters.

If Johnson really wants to make London’s transport fares fairer, here are a few other things he could do with those millions he’ll make from fare increases this year.

More sensible bus tickets

In a highly developed transport system with sophisticated ticketing, it’s ludicrous that a journey on one bus line costs you £1.40, but a journey including changes could cost you double, triple, or even quadruple the amount.

London Assembly members have repeatedly asked for a system whereby you pay once an hour on buses, or have a twenty minute window to change in which you won’t be charged. This would help make bus travel more affordable for those without Tube tickets, or those who must travel to and from work when tubes aren’t running. 

Early bird fares

In the wake of the under-11s rail announcement, Caroline Pidgeon suggested a policy which could have helped out some of the capital’s poorest workers: “We need to be implementing lower early-bird fares to help cleaners, security staff and other low-paid workers who get to London’s offices hours before most commuters”. This would also potentially take some of the pressure off peak time trains. 

Cheaper travelcards 

Weekly, monthly and yearly travelcards already make travel much cheaper for London’s commuters than it is for tourists or daytrippers. However, the current system gives by far the biggest savings to those who can afford a yearly travelcard. For example, a yearly travelcard for Zones 1 and 2 works out as £107 a month; a monthly travelcard costs £123.00. This gives a huge financial advantage to those who can shell out over £1,000 at the start of the year – likely to be those working in higher-paid professions, or who don’t pay rent. 

Sites like Commuter Club already offer a service which levels this divide: it allows you to pay by the month for your  travelcard, and pay something less than the price of twelve monthly travelcards (though more than an annual) over the course of a year. TfL could match this deal – or simply allow monthly payments on an annual travelcard.