Sadiq Khan's promise to freeze London's fares will be the mayoral election's “first broken promise”

Sadiq Khan MP at a hustings last July. Image: Carl Court/Getty.

If there's one thing guaranteed to make London’s commuters froth from the mouth, it's news of an impending fare rise. The city’s annual fare announcement is met with gnashing of teeth and the ritual calculation of how much more that monthly travelcard will cost. “Why do they have to keep rising?” people wail.

And so, some politicians have been promising to freeze or even cut fares in their attempt to win the race to be mayor next year. Sadiq Khan, Labour's candidate, is pledging to freeze fares for the entire four years of his first term.

But here's the problem: anyone promising they won't raise fares without acknowledging an effect on services is either financially illiterate or being economical with the truth. It's a transparent attempt to grab votes. It’ll probably also be the election's first broken promise, with the get-out clause of “oops, we didn't realise how bad the previous administration had let things get” rearing its head come May 2016.

Crunching the numbers

So how much do fare rises actually bring in? For 2016, it's expected to be £43m after an increase of 1%; in 2015 it was expected to be £98m after a rise of 2.5%  (that’s because RPI, a measure of inflation, was higher last year).

These figures aren't one-offs; the money that fare rises bring in accumulates each year. Let's assume inflation stays low for the next few years, sticking with the £43m figure for simplicity, and see how that stacks up.

Here’s how much Sadiq Kahn’s fare freezing plan would cost Transport for London (TfL):

  • Year one loss: £43m
  • Year two loss: £43m  + £43m = £86m
  • Year three loss: £43m + £86m = £129m
  • Year four loss: £43m + £129m = £172m

Inflation, of course, doesn't stand still; costs increase and staff want pay rises, all while fare revenue is, in real terms, falling.

And it gets worse. The real killer is that the government has been cutting TfL's operating grant. from over £3bn in 2009 to £659m for this financial year. And by 2020, if the word coming from the Department for Transport is to be believed, there will be no general subsidy at all (expect to hear more at the autumn statement).


These days the operating grant is about 12 per cent of TfL's total income – it's done a good job of absorbing the cuts – but to shut off a major source of revenues in such an environment seems pretty foolish.

Labour isn't being drawn on how exactly it would freeze fares. Khan's campaign says it would be funded by “efficiency savings within TfL”. But TfL has already closed ticket offices and shed 750 staff in the latest round of an efficiency drive that's been attempting to find £5bn in savings since 2009. You can’t keep making efficiency savings forever.

Labour also points to over 400 TfL staff being paid over £100k a year. What they don't say is what they would do with those 400 staff. Make them all take a 5 per cent pay cut? That'd save about £2m. Sack some of them? There are probably a few lawyers who are surplus to requirements, and we could spend all day arguing whether someone whose job involves “minimis[ing] the group's tax liabilities” has any place in a public sector organisation.

But the top engineers and heads of each transport mode? Probably underpaid, frankly. And I expect TfL will hire more expensive commercial experts to maximise other revenue streams once government funding dries up, so this argument isn't going anywhere.

The bottom line

Money isn't magic. If fares are frozen – and a mayor could freeze, or cut them, if the political will was strong enough – the cash has to come from somewhere.

This is usually the point where someone mentions TfL's reserves, which is what a large part of the 2012 mayoral election revolved around. Labour said the reserves could be used to reduce fares; TfL said it was all earmarked for future upgrades and new infrastructure.

TfL's budgets are notoriously impenetrable but the general consensus these days is that yes, the reserves are needed elsewhere. There isn't a pot of leprechaun gold that can give everyone £5 a month off their travelcard. Sorry.

So if a mayor did freeze fares, something else would have to give. Either upgrade works would be postponed or cancelled, or new projects might not happen, or staff and/or services could be cut (cue strikes). Then again, maybe the public spaces around transport infrastructure could become more commercialised – or we could even end up paying more in council tax.

Londoners aren't stupid. Give them the options, and if they still decide they want cheaper travel at least they'll know the consequences.

Rachel Holdsworth is a senior editor at Londonist. She tweets as @rmholdsworth.

 
 
 
 

You’ve heard of trainspotters and planespotters. Now meet Britain’s growing army of busspotters

Some busspotters in action. Image: Damian Potter.

In the summer of 2014, with too much time on my hands and too little to do, I found myself in the middle of an incredibly active, 200+ person Facebook group. How I ended up here (record scratch, freeze frame) is a little too convoluted and stupid to explain – but what I found was a world that I a) could not have imagined nor b) had any clue even existed.

The group I tumbled into was what I now understand to be a very, very small example of a “busspotting” group – that is, a Facebook group full of dedicated bus enthusiasts which exists to share pictures of buses they see on the road. This group had members from all over the country, with a concentration on northern buses, and was predominantly filled with young, white men.

What I expected to see was a range over relatively interesting buses, holding some significance or another, that were tough to find in your average day-to-day life. This was, largely, not the case. What fascinated me was that the vast majority of the group was not focused on unique buses, new buses, historically significant buses, and so on – but simply on the average bus and or bus route you might take just to get around your city.

What was even more bizarre to me was that people from across the country were meeting up in small towns (Morpeth, Livingston, Stevenage) to take seemingly mundane bus rides to other equally small places (Washington, Gloucester, Grimsby). The busspotters would travel hours on end to meet at these locations simply to ride this bus, often for three or four hours, and experience a bus route they’d never been on before or one that they just particularly enjoyed.

Ooooh. Image: Damian Potter.

After a couple of weeks of silently watching and one semi-ironic post, I left the group. And, for the next three years, I gave barely a thought to bus enthusiasm, as no busspotter group/page/person crossed my path. Unlike similar enthusiasms like planespotting and trainspotting, it didn’t seem to me that busspotting had any significant following.

But, as is the way of these things, a weird thread on Twitter three summers later sparked my memory of my short time in this group. I wanted to see what busspotting was actually and about and if, in fact, it was still a thing.

So I spoke to Damian Potter, an admin on several popular busspotting groups, about what it’s like to be deep into the busspotting scene.

“I used to sit upstairs on double decker buses and 'drive' them, including the pedal movements!” Damian announced right off the bat, speaking of his childhood. “I've been driving coaches at home and abroad since I passed my PCV test in 1994. I've been driving for Transdev Harrogate and District Travel since 1998.”

Damian, as you might have gathered, has been a busspotter since his early youth. Now, at the age of 50, he manages four different busspotting Facebook groupsm, mostly based around the Harrogate area (Transdev Enthusiasts, The Harrogate Bus Company, iTransport Worldwide and Spotting Bus and Coach Spotters). Some of them have over a thousand members.

He also participates in busspotting IRL, travelling around the country participating in busspotting meet-ups and events and co-organising trips along different bus routes. When I asked him what busspotting was to him, he explained that it can manifest in different ways: some people focus on makes of bus and routes, other focus on particular bus companies (National Express is particularly popular). Of course, bus enthusiasm is not solely a British phenomenon, but busspotters can certainly be found in practically every corner of the UK.

“People tend to think that spotters hang around bus stations furtively, with a camera and some curly cheese sandwiches, but this isn't really the case,” Damian continued. That said, he also mentioned some particularly hardcore bus nuts who have been known to trespass on company premises to be the first to snap a picture of a new bus.

“They really do produce some brilliant pictures, though,” he added.


Although much of busspotting culture happens online, predominantly on Facebook, groups often have what are called ‘running days’ which involve meet ups having to do with particular routes. Damian mentioned one particularly popular day following the London Routemaster buses that happen periodically. Not only do these routes draw in enthusiasts, he noted, but also draw huge numbers of tourists who want to claim they’ve ridden on the original London buses.

“I reckon the general public miss the old Routemaster buses. There is only one 'heritage' route in London which still uses Routemaster buses and that's the 15 service between Trafalgar Square and Tower Hill.”

Despite this widespread interest in buses and bus history, though, busspotters often find themselves treated as the lesser of the motor enthusiasts. This became clear to me almost immediately when speaking to Damian, and continued to strike me throughout our conversation; without my saying anything sarcastic, malicious, or snarky, he became instantly defensive of his fellow enthusiasts and of his hobby.

When I asked him why he felt this immediate need to defend busspotting, he explained that people often ridicule busspotters and bus enthusiasm generally, arguing that bus drivers are the most common attackers. “However,” he noted, “if I bring a load of pictures into the canteen they're the first to crowd around to see bus pictures...”

Aaah. Image: Damian Potter.

Despite being perceived as an often-mocked hobby, bus enthusiasm is expanding rapidly, Damien claims. “The bus enthusiast culture is growing, with younger generations getting more involved.” Drawing in new, younger enthusiasts has become easier thanks to social media, as has creating real personal connections. Social media has made it easier for bus enthusiasm to not just stay afloat, but actually thrive over the last several years.

It’s so widespread, in fact, that a national competition is held every year in Blackpool to mark Bus Driver of the Year (Damian himself came in 34th out of 155 back in 2002). This event draws in everyone from the bus world – drivers, manufacturers, tour companies, and enthusiasts alike. Here is one of the many places where great friendships are forged and busspotters who’ve only known each other online can finally meet face-to-face. “Personally I have made some great friends through Facebook,” Damian told me. “I have even stayed over at a friend's house in London a couple of times.”

Busspotting may be less well-known than motor enthusiasms like planespotting and trainspotting, but that very well could change. Thanks to active social media groups and regular in-person meet-ups, people have been able to use busspotting forums as not only a way to find lifelong friends, but also spend more of their free time exploring their hobby with the people they’ve met through these groups and pages who share their enthusiasm. For all the flack it may receive, the future of busspotting looks bright.

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