Pandemic risks wrecking public transport, expert warns

London’s public transport network, which millions of Londoners depend on daily and which has taken two centuries to develop, could be permanently wrecked because of the covid-19 pandemic.

Christian Wolmar has aired serious concerns for London’s transport post-pandemic

That’s the warning from world-renowned transport expert Christian Wolmar.

Wolmar, who sought selection to be Labour’s candidate for London Mayor in 2015, was writing ahead of yesterday’s brinkmanship negotiations between Transport for London and Mayor Sadiq Khan and the government which eventually secured a £1.6billion “sticking plaster” for the transport authority’s finances.

Wolmar has not been uncritical of Khan’s Mayoralty on transport policy, not least over the fares freeze, which the journalist correctly predicted would hamstring TfL’s finances at a time when the authority would need to pay for the badly delayed Crossrail.

Coronavirus could be far more damaging for the capital’s transport than Crossrail’s steepling costs, Wolmar says.

In an article on his website, Wolmar writes, “There is a real risk that the aftermath of this crisis may actually bring about a move away from environmentally sustainable solutions. Indeed, the reaction to the pandemic could threaten the very future of public transport itself.”

Wolmar notes: “There is a terrible irony in the fact that the policy of discouraging the use of public transport has been so successful. Rail use around the country is down to just 5per cent of normal and on the buses, it is around 20per cent.

“It is unfortunately far too simplistic to celebrate the effective renationalisation of the railways and the fact that the buses are also going to be bailed out in a way that involves strong state involvement.

Empty Tube trains due to covid-19 precautions make public transport more reliant on subsidies

“It will be a pyrrhic victory if the future economics of these services are fundamentally wrecked and all that remains is a heavily subsidised service with reduced numbers of passengers and at permanent risk of being cut back.”

Wolmar also says that social distancing on public transport when the lockdown is lifted is “unworkable”.

“First, while it may be practical to police such a restriction on long-distance services where advance booking could be made mandatory,” Wolmar writes, “it is simply impossible to see how it would work in rush hour on commuter services, let alone the London Tube.

“Just picture the scene for a moment: 200 people want to get on the 8.04 from Guildford to Waterloo but the harassed staff try to allow only 100 on, telling the rest they will have to wait for the next service. It is simply not feasible.”

Such a measure, Wolmar says, “Would wreck the economics of the railway, as running half-empty trains costs the same as operating full ones. This would, in turn, make the industry dependent on vast amounts of subsidy that would be vulnerable to political whim.”

The same applies to bus services, Wolmar says.

Wolmar, a former Labour parliamentary candidate, argues that local authorities run by his party “should do everything in their power to facilitate cycling and walking as alternatives to public transport. That means a crash programme of establishing cycle lanes, using cones and plastic barriers, and publicising their introduction”.

Yesterday, the first cycle lane on Park Lane was opened, while today Mayor Khan has announced plans for car-free zones in the city centre. Wolmar cites Milan and Paris as having applied pandemic transport measures to their post-lockdown cities.

Could Sadiq Khan introduce more measures to give public transport, cyclists and pedestrians more priority on our streets?

Wolmar also agrees with Sadiq Khan that all public transport users should wear masks. “There are no simple solutions, but we must be realistic. Social distancing and public transport are simply incompatible. Auto Trader magazine ran an article trumpeting the fact that car sales will rise in response to the current crisis. The last thing we need is more cars on our already crowded roads and a reversal of the trend towards increased use of public and sustainable forms of transport.

“If there’s one thing this pandemic has taught us it is the dire consequences of health inequality in this country, with, at one point, 91 per cent of fatalities among those with underlying morbidities, and those morbidities most prevalent in low socio-economic groups.

“Increased car use and a move away from public transport will only exacerbate that shameful inequality.”

Read more: Tories play politics over covid emergency funding for TfL

Click here to read Wolmar’s article in full

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5 Responses to Pandemic risks wrecking public transport, expert warns

  1. Lewis White says:

    I would guess that 75% of rush hour travellers from Croydon to London work in large offices. If the large employers that have these large offices could allow their employees to work 3 days a week at the office, and 2 at home, and extend flexi-hours to allow people to clock on up to 11am and work later, that would reduce the need for travel. We would need a new flexible season ticket to accommodate that.

    Plus make everyone wear a facemask. This should have been planned ages ago.

    • To be frank, what the past two months has shown is that very few office-based businesses will require the large amount of real estate that they have been occupying previously. Smaller offices = smaller rent bills. Staff who can work from home are spared at least two hours’ commuting every day.

      And face masks: the only reason government “advice” was that they were unnecessary was because their PPE procurement was so bad, they feared that if the public began buying masks, they would divert what stock was available away from the NHS and care homes. And only now are we beginning to get data to show the full impact of poor PPE provision in care homes.

      • mraemiller says:

        I can’t see unions, for example, organising very easily with everyone isolated in their back bedroom. How do you form a picket line on zoom?

        Funny that having finally succeeded in reducing traffic, renationalisation, increasing the congestion charges to punitive rates and closing off many bridges and thoroughfares to cars sealing them in South London Christian still isn’t happy…

        Obviously there will be a financial shortfall during lockdown but if in the medium term with a more or less complete monopoly public transport can’t make a profit… That’ll be a bit odd.

      • It’s not just about size either – a big part of the reason companies pay such insanely high rents for Zone 1 office space (and they really have become insane the past ten years or so) is that it minimises journey time from all sides of the capital. You can draw on a much larger talent pool without people having to relocate if your office is in Farringdon, as opposed to Croydon or Hounslow.

        Now suppose people are only travelling in to work two days a week instead of five. A 90 minute or longer commute suddenly becomes quite a lot more tolerable, and a location where coffee and a sandwich leaves you with change from £20 starts to make a lot more sense for both employers and employees.

  2. Dan Maertens says:

    ….. “yesterday, the first cycle lane on Park Lane was opened” got me all excited, at last there might actually be a safer way of negotiating the main north south route through the middle of Croydon, but of course, that’s not going to happen is it? We can only dream, and add it to the very long list of cycle improvements required within the borough, not least of which is the general state of the roads, which, even with the quick fixes being undertaken by the Council’s maintenance contractor (poorly, in my view,) remain in a parlous and in many cases, dangerous condition for the cycling community.

    Face masks or face coverings should be donned by anyone using public transport where they can only use it by sitting or standing in closer proximity to others than the 2m distancing recommendations. This is the socially responsible thing to do – I don’t know if I am a coronavirus carrier until I have been tested, neither do you. If I wear a mask or face covering to reduce the risk of you being infected by a virus transmitted by me, and everyone else on public transport behaves the same, the chance of the virus being transmitted on public transport will be significantly reduced.

    With the massive improvements in air quality that have been gained over the last few weeks, the last thing that is needed is a massive increase in car usage because we can’t devise a solution to use public transport in safety – we can, and we should, urgently.

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