So what went wrong with Philip Hammond’s proposed millennial railcard?

Oh, Phil, where did it all go wrong? Image: Getty.

Millennials just can’t catch a break, can they? Bad enough they have to deal with insecure work, over-priced housing and a future in which Sussex look like Mad Max: Fury Road; now, they won’t even get their railcards.

The government’s plans for cut-price rail cards for those aged 26 to 30, announced by Chancellor Philip Hammond in last autumn’s Budget, had already run into problems. March’s pilot schem saw the website where you signed up for a cards almost instantly fall over, unable to cope with the level of demand. Many of the more pro-active millennials, who spent an hour or more on the phone in an attempt to get their rail cards, were eventually told that there weren’t actually enough to go around.

Now, it turns out, this is as good as it’s going to get. The Spectator’s Katy Balls, wearing her other hat over at The I, revealed yesterday that the scheme has been delayed, because of a row over who’s going to pay for it. How long this delay will last it’s impossible to say – but I don’t think we can rule out “indefinitely”.

It’s tempting to view this as the latest example of the society-wide phenomenon in which the younger generation are getting repeatedly, and painfully, stuffed by their elders. It’s hard to imagine a promise of goodies for the over 50s being quietly abandoned in this way. Quite the opposite: subsidies to that generation are treated as inviolable, even when they look suspiciously like a waste of public money. Subsidies to the young, by contrast, are often framed instead as a somehow illegitimate attempt to buy votes: witness the row over Labour’s proposals for free bus travel for the under 25s.

But while intergenerational inequality may be a factor, the proximate cause of the delay is more prosaic. As Balls quotes a Treasury source as saying: “No-one wants to pay for it.”

Think about how a cut price rail card actually works. The rail network is privately run, so the card means that private companies will be required to accept lower fares from some passengers – even if they squeeze out those who are paying full-whack. To ensure the train companies aren’t disadvantaged (you may be fine with that; contract law isn’t), the government has to plug the gap.


The problem is, we don’t actually know how big that gap will be. Changing fares will change behaviour: you’d expect more young people to take subsidised trains, and perhaps more older people to think the train is suddenly a bit over crowded and to avoid it. The Treasury will have modelled this, when working out costs – but the fact demand was high enough to immediately crash that website suggests it may not have modelled it very well.

So: rolling out the cheap rail cards will require some bit of the government to accept responsibility for paying a bill without knowing how big that bill will be. Departments have budgets and targets to hit, so nobody is keen to do that.

And so, while that turf war continues, those lucky millennials will be denied one of the few things this government has ever promised to do for them.

There’s another way of reading this story – that it’s just the latest in a whole series of policies this government has announced to get good headlines, without giving the slightest thought to how it might actually work.

In that bucket you can also put Universal Credit, and starter homes, and the expansion of Right to Buy to housing associations, and even, if you’re so minded, Brexit. All of these things sound great, to a certain segment of voters, in a 300 word news story – but they all fall apart when you actually have to deliver them.

It’s tempting to view this news as yet another example of the British government screwing things up for millennials. But the real story, I suspect, is of the British government screwing up for itself. It’s learning slowly and painfully that, try as you might, you can’t govern by headline.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites

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Here are eight thoughts on TfL’s proposed cuts to London’s bus network

A number 12 bus crosses Westminster Bridge. Image: Getty.

In 2016, the urbanism blog City Observatory had a modest proposal for how American cities could sort out their transport systems: “Londonize”.

Its theory, the name of which referenced another popular urbanism blog, Copenhagenize, was that the key plank of Transport for London’s success was something that even transport nerds did not consider very sexy: its buses.

Though the Tube might get more glamorous press, London’s bus service really is impressively massive: It carries roughly 2.3bn passengers per year—much more than the Tube (1.3bn), close to the New York City subway (2.8bn), and nearly half as much as every bus service in America combined (5.1bn), while serving a population roughly 1/35 as large.

How has TfL done this? By making its bus network high frequency, reliable, relatively easy to understand and comprehensive. We rarely talk about this, because the tube map is far more fun – but the reason it’s so difficult to fall off the transport network in Greater London is because you’re never that far from a bus.

Given all that, we should probably talk about TfL’s plans to rethink – and in most cases, cut – as many as 36 different central London bus services over the next few months.

I’m not going to rehash details of the changes on which TfL is consulting from next month: there are just too many of them, and anyway it’s someone else’s scoop. The story was originally broken by Darryl Chamberlain over on 853 London; there’s also some fascinating analysis on Diamond Geezer’s blog. You should read both of those stories, though preferably not before you’ve finished reading this one.

Before offering my own analysis of the proposed changes, though, I should offer a few examples. More than a dozen routes are facing a trim: the 59 from King’s Cross back to Euston, the 113 from Oxford Circle to Marble Arch, the 171 from Holborn all the way down to Elephant & Castle and so on. A couple – the 10, the 48, the C2, and at most times the special routemaster version of the 15 – are being withdrawn altogether.

On, and one new route is planned – the 311, from Fulham Broadway to Oxford Circus. This will help plug some of the cuts to the 11, 19 and 22.

So, what does all this mean? Some thoughts:

1) This might not quite be as awful as it initially sounds

TfL says that demand for buses has fallen by around 10 per cent in London in recent years. It predicts it’ll fall further when Crossrail opens, as passengers switch to the new line, or to the tube routes relieved by the new line. So: the idea of taking some unwanted capacity out of the system is not, in itself, terrible.

Striping out unnecessary buses should also improve air quality in some of London’s worst pollution hot spots, and improve traffic flow, hopefully speeding up journeys on those buses that remain. 

A map from the presentation in which TfL explained its plans, showing the reduction in bus numbers on key arteries. Hilariously, notes Darryl Chamberlain, “It no longer produces its own maps, so has had to use one prepared by a bus enthusiast”.

The plans might even free up buses and staff to increase frequencies in outer London where demand hasn’t fallen – though these plans won’t be unveiled until next year and, for reasons I’ll come to below, I’ll believe it when we see it.

2) For many bus users, a lot of these changes will pass almost unnoticed

By my count, I use nine of the affected routes with any regularity – but only three of the changes are things that I’m likely to be at all inconvenienced by. Most of the changes either affect a part of the route I don’t take, or one where there are easy, and pain free alternatives.

This is anecdotal, obviously – perhaps I’m just lucky. But my suspicion is that a lot of these changes will go unnoticed by most passengers. It’s only the sheer number of them happening at once that makes this look like a big deal.

3) The Hopper fare makes this easier...

Once upon a time, if you had to switch buses, you had to pay a second fare. This isn’t true of journeys on the tube or railways – and since bus passengers have, on average, less money than tube passengers, it amounted to a pretty unfair tax on poorer Londoners.

But in January, in what is probably his most notable policy achievement of his two years in office so far, London’s mayor Sadiq Khan changed the rules. Now you can take as many buses as you want within an hour, for a single fare: that means you can switch buses without paying a penalty.

That will have made it easier for TfL to cut routes back: replacing a direct bus journey with one that requires a change no longer means imposing a financial penalty on passengers.


4) ...but not that easy

That’s about where the good news stops, though – because there are reasons other than cost why people prefer direct bus routes. Needing to change buses will be difficult for anyone with any form of mobility impairment, for example. Even for those of us lucky enough not to fall into that category, it’ll be annoying: it’s just easier to stay in one seat for 40 minutes than to get turfed off and have to fight for a new one halfway through.

More than that, from the passengers’ point of view, excess capacity feels quite good a lot of the time: it means your bus may well be nice and empty. Reducing the number of buses along those key corridors will also make those that remain more crowded.

5) The motive is almost certainly financial

Another of Sadiq Khan’s big policy promises was to freeze fares. He made this promise at a time when central government is massively reducing the financial support it gives TfL (the work, Chamberlain notes, of Evening Standard editor George Osborne, back when he was chancellor). And the Hopper fare, while a great idea in many ways, means a further reduction in income.

So: TfL is scrambling for cash: this is why I remain cynical about those new outer London bus routes. I would be amazed if money wasn’t a motivation here, not least because...

6) TfL thinks no one will notice

Any attempt to reduce tube frequencies, let alone close a station, would result in uproar. Hashtag campaigners! Angry people pointing at things in local newspapers! Damning reports on the front of the Evening Standard from the bloke who made it happen!

Buses, though? Their routes change, slightly, all the time. And do you really notice whether your local route comes every 10 minutes or every 12? That’s not to mention the fact that bus passengers, as previously noted, tend to be poorer – and so, less vocal – than tube passengers.

So cuts, and the savings they bring, are much easier to sneak through. TfL probably would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for those meddling bloggers.

Although...

7) Scrapping the C2 might be a mistake

The C2 runs from Parliament Hill, through Kentish Town and Camden to Oxford Circus. In other words, it links north London, where a lot of journalists live, to the offices of the BBC and Buzzfeed.

As occasional New Statesman writer James Ball notes, this is probably not the easiest route to quietly shelve.

8) None of this is set in stone

The consultation doesn’t even begin until next month and then will run for six weeks – so all these plans may yet be forgotten. We shall see.

Anyway – here’s Darryl Chamberlain’s original scoop, and here’s some detailed analysis on Diamond Geezer. Please support your local bloggers by reading them.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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