You wait ages for some good news from Transport for London to come along and then, as the saying doesn’t quite go, more job cuts are announced at the same time.
Woozy nightclubbers and boozy bar-hoppers will raise a glass to Boris when he grants them a 24 hour weekend service on the tube. This is great, in theory. No one wants to be stranded at a bus stop ten miles from home at the witching hour. But extended opening hours barely sweetens the pill when the mayor’s plans also involve ticket office closures and up to 750 job cuts. The transport authority is facing a budget reduction of about £78m in the financial years of 2013 and 2014 and said the plans would help it save more than £40m a year.
Now, there’s no doubt that an extended service will be a policy popular among the well-heeled types who can still afford to take the London underground these days – and who can afford that ‘oh-go-on-then’ last pint in the pub without having to worry about missing the last train home.
Before you baulk at that statement, consider how many iPhones, how many Kindles, and how many beaming pairs of black-cap Oxford shoes there were on your last morning commute. Some 78 per cent of Tube users are now from managerial and professional groups, defined as ABC1s. In contrast, just 22 per cent of Tube users come from C2DE groups associated with the bottom half of the income spectrum. This compares to 37 per cent of bus users who are from this category.
Mile for mile, it’s cheaper to travel on the Orient Express than take the tube. Fares in London are the most expensive in the world and since Boris Johnson became mayor the cost of a single bus journey has jumped by 50 per cent. In January, passengers saw a 4.2 per cent increase on average in all fares.
Maybe 24 hour weekend tubes will be a godsend to those cleaners and caterers who have to work nightshifts at the hotels and casinos of our city. But more than likely, it won’t make the slightest bit of difference to their long, cold wait for a far cheaper night bus. Boris Johnson’s placatory offer of extended Wifi provision, contactless bank card payments all attest to the fact that when it comes to transport, London is becoming a tale of two cities.
So it’s no surprise that when you actually ask a Londoner what they think should be the top priority for London Underground, a mammoth 51 per cent of respondents say lower fares, while only 15 per cent say longer opening hours.
Despite the celebratory newspaper headlines, only 14 per cent of Londoners say they would ‘frequently’ use the underground between 12:30am and 2am on a Friday or Saturday night, while 17 per cent would ‘occasionally’ take advantage of the late Tube, and 67 per cent say they would ‘rarely’ or ‘never’ use the Tube during extended hours.
Bob Crow of the RMT has said that extended opening hours “is just a smokescreen to try and camouflage the real issue which is a savage cuts to jobs, access and safety.” He’s not wrong. Transport for London is planning its own death by a thousand staff cuts. It badly needs to address a worrying long-term trend: increasing usage versus declining levels of staff. In 2012, there were 42 million more passengers than in 2010, but between 2010-2012, 800 jobs were cut.
“Don’t worry”, Boris says, “there’ll be more ticket machines”. But anyone who’s lost their temper over an ‘unexpected item in bagging area’ at the self-checkout at their local Tesco Metro will agree that there are some things that machines just don’t do as well as humans. As Sadiq Khan noted today, staff are the human face of TfL. They smile and talk to a customer who is lost, or has issues with their Oyster cards, or has access needs, or who is in danger from another passenger. A platform can go from being occupied by 300 to 1000 people in three minutes. If there’s one thing that the Channel 4 series ‘Confessions from the Underground’ taught us, it’s to value the staff that stop us from teetering over the edge in an overcrowded station.
What really doesn’t add up is the fact that if extended tube hours is going to work, Londoners – especially vulnerable customers and women – need to feel safe using it and that will involve properly staffing stations. But 45 per cent of women living in London said they would feel unsafe using the underground during extended hours. That compares to 28 per cent of women on public transport generally.
Boris Johnson has, for too long, shirked his responsibility to deliver safe and genuinely affordable transport for all. As always with the mayor, beneath the glitzy headlines is lack of regard for ordinary Londoners.