Written evidence submitted by the Mayor of London
Covid-19 is the biggest challenge to London’s public transport network in Transport for London’s (TfL) history. When the pandemic began, the Mayor asked TfL to strongly encourage people only to make absolutely essential journeys. This swift action was a key part of the national effort to fight the virus, with public transport usage falling by up to 95 per cent. However, this drop in passenger numbers led to devastating and unprecedented revenue loss for London’s world-class transport network, and consequences which are likely to extend far beyond the initial response to the crisis.
Impact on London’s transport network
Before the crisis, a regular weekday would see over 4 million journeys on the Tube and 6 million on London buses. Over the course of March, as the crisis hit and Londoners followed TfL’s and the Mayor’s advice, ridership on the Tube dropped by an average of 95 per cent and bus journeys by 85 per cent. 12 April saw the lowest number of journeys in a single day on the Tube since the 1800s – around 64,000. On the major road network, journeys dropped from a total of 30,000km on a normal weekday to 10,000km on weekdays during lockdown, and to less than 5,000km on weekends in the same period. The data showed that Londoners overwhelmingly heeded the advice to stay at home, aided by TfL overhauling its entire advertising estate – one of the most valuable out-of-home estates in the world – to reinforce these messages.
We are now seeing some increases in journeys across the network, with Tube journeys at around 15 per cent of normal levels as of late June. This is consistent with Government advice that people who can’t work from home should return to work. Road traffic has increased from roughly 50 per cent of normal levels at the end of March to over 85 per cent of normal levels in late June.
It is important to emphasise that throughout the crisis, TfL has consistently run the maximum possible service that staff availability has allowed. This has allowed Londoners who need to use the public transport network to do so safely. Like all employers, TfL have had a number of staff who were unable to work – because they were sick, shielding, or self-isolating. At the peak of the crisis, nearly a third of London Underground train operator staff were unable to work for one of these reasons. TfL will continue to operate the maximum possible service. In the weekday peak, it is now running over 90 per cent of Tube services and around 90 per cent of bus services each week.
Impact on transport workers
The work of TfL frontline staff has been nothing short of heroic – they have continued to come into work each day to keep the transport network running. As of 29 June, 44 people working for TfL or one of our partner organisations, including 29 bus drivers, have tragically lost their lives to Covid-19. TfL has commissioned a study by the University College London (UCL) Institute of Health Equity to better understand the pattern of coronavirus infections and deaths among London's bus workers.
The safety of staff and passengers has always been and will continue to be our highest priority. The Mayor and TfL have introduced a range of measures to protect workers, including introducing an enhanced cleaning regime using hospital-grade anti-viral disinfectant across the network; reducing demand for services and taking steps to support social distancing on them, including limiting numbers of passengers on buses at any one time; requiring the use of face coverings across the network and offering these for TfL staff as soon as the Government guidance changed; temporarily changing boarding on buses to middle or back door only; installing additional protection for drivers’ cabs; and lobbying the Government for early access to testing for transport workers.
Covid-19 has caused an unprecedented financial challenge for TfL. Before the crisis, London was already the one of the only major cities in the world not to receive direct Government funding for running day-to-day transport services. As a result of the Government’s decision in 2015 to phase out TfL’s direct operating grant, fares and commercial revenues have been forming just over 80 per cent of TfL’s income. The other 20 per cent comes via the Greater London Authority from London business rates revenue, which has also been impacted by the crisis.
Despite these challenges, TfL was almost balancing its books from an operational perspective before the crisis – the last like-for-like forecast before Covid-19 showed TfL’s net operating deficit down by 86 per cent from nearly £1.5bn in May 2016 to just over £200m, with plans in place to achieve a net operating surplus over the course of its Business Plan. Recognising economic risks to income, cash balances were increased by 31 per cent in the same period, alongside TfL reducing its like-for-like operating costs every year for the past four years (never previously achieved), reducing its use of non-permanent labour, and starting a new three-year programme to reduce back and middle office costs by 30 per cent. However, due to the loss of grant, TfL was already facing a significant structural funding gap for necessary capital investment in London before the crisis.
It is because the cost of running the transport network falls overwhelmingly upon users that TfL needed emergency funding support as a result of Covid-19. The number of people paying to use the network collapsed as a result of the introduction of restrictions on movement. TfL’s fares and other demand-led revenue have dropped by around 90 per cent. The funding deal agreed with Government was to cover an operating shortfall of £1.9bn projected for the period from 1 April to 17 October. However, the pre-existing structural funding gap for capital investment remains, as does any operating shortfall beyond 17 October.
TfL is a public body operating under local government law and therefore has statutory obligations to work to a balanced budget. Financial support from Government was confirmed just hours before TfL would have been forced to issue a statutory Section 114 notice acknowledging that this was no longer possible. This would have required the cessation of all new expenditure with the exception of safeguarding vulnerable people and statutory services. This in turn would have meant virtually no Tube and bus services would have run.
The funding deal agreed with Government will allow TfL to run public transport safely until mid-October and support the economic restart – but it is a sticking plaster. It is not the deal the Mayor wanted or the deal that London needed. Longer-term sustainable funding for transport in the capital will have to be agreed. The new operational reality will require a reimagining of public transport in London; but it is clear that an effective and extensive public transport system will need to operate in the future and will require continued support. Jobs, homes, and the future economic success of the capital (and its net contribution to the Exchequer) are all dependent upon it.
Getting more people back to work while maintaining social distancing will be an enormous challenge especially in London, given the volume of users. Travel across the network will not be returning to how it was before. A 2m distancing policy means the average Tube train is reduced to 13-15 per cent of its usual capacity, and the average bus to 19 per cent. Everyone who can work from home will have to continue doing so for the foreseeable future; we will all need to avoid making unnecessary journeys; and many more of us will need to walk and cycle. If people do need to travel, they should reconsider the time, route, and mode of their journey, to reserve public transport for those who have no other option. If using public transport, people should wear a face covering for their entire journey. At each stage of the release of lockdown, TfL is providing targeted transport advice to relevant users. For example, it provided advice to every headteacher and advice that could be cascaded to every parent before the 1 June restart of teaching for some school years.
We have seen unprecedented environmental benefits as a result of the lockdown and fewer journeys being made especially by private vehicles, and the Mayor agrees with the Transport Secretary that these benefits must be retained. TfL is asking people to walk and cycle as much as they can and is anticipating a possible ten-fold increase in cycling and five-fold increase in walking. Early data from the Santander Cycles programme suggests this is already happening, with the weekend of 30-31 May being the busiest in the scheme’s history, with over 133,000 hires. In response to this increased demand, the Mayor has launched the Streetspace programme. Working with boroughs, the programme is transforming London’s roads, including rapid construction of a strategic cycle network using temporary materials, widening footways in town centres and high streets, and reducing traffic on residential streets and near schools. So far, 13km of new and upgraded cycle lanes have been added on London’s roads, and more than 12,000m2 of road space has been reallocated to support social distancing for people walking.
We must avoid a car-based recovery at all costs. Emergency vehicles and essential delivery vehicles need to move around easily, and increased numbers of people walking and cycling need a safe environment with clean air. In accordance with the conditions of the Government funding agreement, TfL reinstated all road user charging schemes (Congestion Charge, ULEZ and LEZ) on Monday 18 May. From 22 June, the Congestion Charge will temporarily increase to £15, operate from 07:00-22:00 seven days a week, and the residents’ discount will be closed to new applicants on 1 August. These temporary changes will reduce traffic in central London and enable more journeys to be made safely by foot or by bike, while keeping the bus network reliable for those making essential journeys and helping to clean up our air. The recovery from this crisis must be a green one, giving us the chance to shape the cleaner, healthier future we want.