London’s transport struggles: Crossrail delays, a TfL cash crisis and Sadiq Khan’s backtrack on fares

When Sadiq Khan came to power five years ago, the Tube was experiencing record passenger numbers, increased traffic was causing bus delays and Crossrail was only two and a half years from opening. In London transport commissioner Mike Brown‘s report to the Transport for London board in March 2016, he reassured members: “Construction remains on time and within the funding envelope of GBP14.8 billion. Overall, the project is more than 72 per cent complete.”

Crossrail, as Mr Khan was to discover two years later, half-way into his mayoralty, was in fact in a catastrophic condition. A call had to be made to Buckingham Palace to cancel the opening ceremony, which the Queen should have performed on December 9, 2018. Several more have had to be made to the Department for Transport for additional funds.

The scheme’s total bill is now about GBP4 billion higher than budgeted, and the delay has grown to three and a half years. The official opening date is the first half of next year, despite the optimism of current TfL commissioner Andy Byford that the line under central London may yet open before the end of the year. The delay has also deprived TfL of millions in fares.

But according to transport expert Christian Wolmar, who has written a book about Crossrail, the failures were “not really down to the Mayor” who could not be expected to project manage it. However, the jury is out on whether Mr Khan should have had someone on the scheme who would have flagged up the problems sooner. The long-term impact could be to worsen the chances of Crossrail 2 ever being built.

It has already been shelved for a decade due to TfL’s financial crisis.

a man standing in front of a building talking on a cell phone: Getty Images (C) Provided by Evening Standard Getty Images

This began in 2018 when its operating grant from the Government ended. The problems were made GBP3 billion worse by the loss of fares due to the pandemic lockdowns. But the problems were partly of Mr Khan’s own making, too.

The most prominent of his 40 manifesto pledges on transport was to “freeze London transport fares for four years”. His 2016 manifesto vowed: “Londoners won’t pay a penny more for their travel in 2020 than they do today.” It helped win him City Hall — but was only partly true.

The promise was quickly scaled back to relate only to TfL pay-as-you-go fares. The cost of Travelcards continued to rise — as did the annual cap on multiple single journeys, which meant that most frequent travellers in fact paid more. His partial fares “freeze” cost TfL an estimated GBP640 million in lost income.

Professor Stephen Glaister, of Imperial College London, said the fares freeze, fewer bus passengers than hoped and the extent of travel concessions combined to deprive TfL of a sizeable chunk of income. The Hopper ticket, which allows multiple journeys on the bus or tram within 60 minutes for a single fare, has also reduced TfL’s fares revenue. “When Covid struck, the TfL budget was under considerable stress,” he said. “Another fact was that revenues on the Underground and buses were not growing as fast as had been budgeted for.

Bus patronage had been falling for some time. The other thing which was becoming a worry was that, systematically since the start of the Greater London Authority in 2000, TfL had been borrowing. Its debts have risen from zero to about GBP13 billion.” Before taking office, Mr Khan described TfL as “inefficient and flabby”.

Under his administration, it has undergone repeated cuts — though an independent review by Professor Glaister and others said its generous pension scheme was “outdated and must be reformed”. Looking ahead, Professor Glaister predicted the number one transport issue in the next mayoral term would be TfL’s funding — starting with the need to conclude negotiations with the Government over a third Covid bail-out. The Centre for London think tank believes the issue of road use — and in particular whether to charge Londoners to use their cars — is crucial, both for the environment and TfL’s long-term income.

It has suggested scrapping the GBP15 congestion charge, the GBP12.50 ultra-low emission zone levy and the proposed GBP3.50 Greater London boundary charge and replace them with a single levy, applicable across all 33 boroughs, “based on distance travelled, type of vehicle, time of day, levels of congestion and availability of alternative travel options”. Rob Whitehead, director of strategic projects at the Centre for London, said Mr Khan had been good at setting “big targets” — such as to increase the number of journeys walked, cycled or made on public transport from 64 per cent to 80 per cent by 2030. “The very ambitious carbon net zero target overarching that — trying to get to net zero by 2030 — is bold, and almost without parallel for a big city like London,” Mr Whitehead said. Mr Khan promised to “maintain the congestion charge at its current level” but increased it from GBP11.50 to GBP15, while extending its hours into the evening and weekend, under the terms of TfL’s first Covid bail-out from the Government.

His re-election will bring a major expansion of the Ulez, taking it to the boundaries of the North and South Circular zones on October 25.

The central London Ulez was introduced barely without controversy in April 2019, 17 months earlier than Boris Johnson’s initial schedule.

“Perhaps his boldest move has been bringing forward the Ulez implementation — though it’s both very radical and also probably not radical enough,” Mr Whitehead said. “It’s not sufficient for dealing with the twin crises of air pollution and carbon emissions.”