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.
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.
“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.
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.”
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