UK rail industry preparing for increase in services

The UK off work today – even more so than we've all been of late – taking a holiday to commemorate the 75th anniversary of VE Day. So the news here is relatively quiet. 

But a couple of developments do seem worth noting. Firstly, the BBC reports that Britain's rail services are to be increased, in order to ensure the network can cope when people return to work. 

During lockdown, only around 50% of timetabled services have been running. But on Monday 18 May this will rise to around 70% - the maximum level of service rail operators can provide given staff availability. 

The increase in services is likely to be more visible on commuter routes than intercity ones. But how soon the people of Britain will be using them still remains to be seen, because earlier today a cabinet minister seemed to pour water on the widespread reports that lockdown would begin to be lifted next week.

“People should not expect big changes from the prime minister on Sunday,” said culture secretary Oliver Dowden, referring to the speech in which Boris Johnson is expected to announce the loosening of certain restrictions. “But what they should expect, and this is what people have been asking for some time, tell us where we're going. Give us a road map ahead.”

How this caution fits with the newspaper front pages using words like “rejoice”, to communicate that Britain would soon start to reopen – stories so widespread that it looks a lot like they were briefed by someone in government – is not currently clear.


Sadiq Khan and Grant Shapps clash over free bus travel for under 18s

A London bus at Victoria station. Image: Getty.

The latest front in the row between Transport for London (TfL) and national government over how to fund the capital’s transport system: free bus travel for the under 18s.

Two weeks ago, you’ll recall, TfL came perilously close to running out of money and was forced to ask for a bail out. The government agreed, but offered less money, and with more strings attached, than the agency wanted. At present, there are a range of fare discounts – some up to 100% – available to children depending on their age and which service they’re using, provided they have the right Oyster card. One of the government’s strings, the mayor’s office says, was to end all free TfL travel for the under 18s, Oyster or no Oyster.

The Department for Transport’s line on all this is that this is about maximising capacity. Many working-age people need to use buses to get to their jobs: they’re more likely to be able to do that, while also social distancing, if those buses aren’t already full of teenagers riding for free. (DfT cited the same motivation for banning the use of the Freedom Pass, which provides free travel for the retired, at peak times.)

But in an open letter to transport secretary Grant Shapps, the mayor, Sadiq Khan, wrote that TfL believed that 30% of children who currently received free travel had a statutory entitlement to it, because they attend schools more than a certain distance from their homes. If TfL doesn’t fund this travel, London’s boroughs must, which apart from loading costs onto local government means replacing an administrative system that already exists with one that doesn’t. 

Some Labour staffers also smell Tory ideological objections to free things for young people at work. To quote Khan’s letter:

“It is abundantly clear that losing free travel would hit the poorest Londoners hardest at a time when finances are stretched more than ever... I want to make sure that families who might not have a choice but to use public transport are not further disadvantaged.”

London’s deputy mayor for transport, Heidi Alexander, is set to meet government officials next week to discuss all this. In the mean time, you can read Khan’s letter here.

UPDATE: The original version of this piece noted that the full agreement between the mayor and DfT remained mysteriously unpublished. Shortly after this story went live, the agreement appeared. Here it is.

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