Why does every metro system use a different fare structure?

Oh, no: Paris’ RER network. Image: RATP.

Imagine, for a moment, that you are wandering through the old town of Amsterdam. As a tourist, you might not be au fait with the smartcard system there, so you buy a one hour ticket to travel across the city. You check in upon entering your first mode of transport, and then you’re free to mix transport modes as much as you like until your hour is up, when you are obliged to check out.

This is only one fare of many different types that exist in Amsterdam, but it already differs radically from how things work in London. Here, the fare system for buses and trams is entirely separate to the one for the Tube and Overground when it comes to how much you pay. The only similarity is that both London and Amsterdam will ask you to pay extra if you want to use a national rail service.

There’s a reason for this: it lies in the different prices the two cities attach to different destinations or different modes of transport. In Amsterdam, fares align: everything is included in the same fare, and it’s how long you travel for, not exactly where you travel to, that affects the price. Except for journeys to the airport, there is no zonal fare structure like.

In London, though, price differentiation is king. A bus costs less than a tube which costs less if you don’t use Zone 1 but costs an arm and a leg if you commute in from Chesham. But that journey from Chesham won’t cost any more if you travel back out again, to say, Upminster. This is confusing and impenetrable to anyone who isn’t a transport nerd. Why don’t London’s fares align? Why can’t cities agree on how to manage their fares?

In New York, the fare system is extremely simple and clear cut. One journey to anywhere costs exactly the same, no matter how you do it or where you go; but changing to a different mode of transport starts a new journey. This system works for New York because its public transit stays relatively close to the city centre – there’s no equivalent of the Metropolitan Line out to the wilds of Buckinghamshire that needs to be included in the fare structure.

In Paris, they took New York’s system and made it as confusing as London’s version. There’s one universal ticket price, and you can also change within 90 minutes, but only if you’re using similar modes of transport. You can change from Metro to RER, and you can change from a tram to a bus – but crucially, you can’t change from a metro to a bus. And these rules only apply within the subway-dense city of Paris – RER lines beyond Zone 1 can get expensive, fast.


In Tokyo, the authorities take a different tact to mixing modes. You can’t change without incurring a new fare, but each fare is determined on the basis of distance alone. If you travelled 10km by metro and then took the bus one stop, you would – intuitively – expect the bus ticket to be cheaper than the metro. In Tokyo, your intuition would be right. (The same is true of the Amsterdam smart card, but this does not apply to single tickets.)

A moment of reflection might lead you to conclude that all public transport should work this way. After all, it’s how most transport works outside of urban centres: the further you go, the more you pay. That’s why so many people balked at Sian Berry’s suggestion to remove the fare structure entirely when she ran for London mayor.

And yet, London’s current system already leads to instances of total nonsense. You could travel from Chesham to Baker Street or Chesham to Upminster, and even though the latter journey is nearly twice as long, you’d pay the same, because you’ve travelled through just as many zones. If we were in Tokyo, we wouldn’t have this problem; all metro-stops are equal in their eyes.

So why do cities manage their fare structures so differently? Why does London have so many confusing zones, complete with “special fares apply”? Why does Paris place an arbitrary divide between fare systems at its old city boundary? Why doesn’t Tokyo?

The classic retort of “look at a map” pays dividends here. Tell someone that Chesham is a dense urban area and they’ll laugh at you. In Tokyo, meanwhile, urban densities continue a lot further into the suburbs, as any satellite photo will tell you.

If we look to Paris, the logic is the same: a unified fare structure within the urban centre make sense because it is a near-uniform area of high density where trends in travel are consistent. London is one of the greenest capital cities in the world, and part of the reason is that the outer edges of its administrative area are packed with open space and patches of green belt. And yet, metro stations designed for the density of Kilburn continue all the way to Stanmore.

This is just one of a whole series of reasons why it’s so hard to come up with a single fare system appropriate for every city. London’s ongoing advertising campaign for the “Wonderful World of Off-Peak” is testament to a desire to simplify what travellers expect to pay on their journey. Perhaps in a world with a less restricted TfL budget, a reduced commitment to freezing fares, or a more homogenous urban geography, we could hope for a better fare structure. But in the meanwhile, for better or for worse, “special fares apply”.

 
 
 
 

Joe Anderson: Why I resigned from the Northern Powerhouse Partnership

Liverpool Lime Street station, 2008. Image: Getty.

The Labour mayor of Liverpool has a few choice words for Chris Grayling.

I resigned from the board of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership this week. I just didn’t see the point of continuing when it is now crystal clear the government isn’t committed to delivering the step-change in rail investment in the North that we so desperately need. Without it, the Northern Powerhouse will remain a pipedream.

Local government leaders like me have been left standing at the altar for the past three years. The research is done. The case has been made. Time and again we’ve been told to be patient – the money is coming.

Well, we’ve waited long enough.

The only thing left is for the transport secretary to come up with the cash. I’m not holding my breath, so I’m getting on with my day job.

There’s a broader point here. Rail policy has been like a roller-coaster in recent years. It soars and loops, twisting and turning, without a clear, committed trajectory. There is no consistency – or fairness. When London makes the case for Crossrail, it’s green-lit. When we make the same case for HS3 – linking the key Northern cities – we are left in Whitehall limbo.

Just look at the last week. First we had the protracted resignation of Sir Terry Morgan as Chairman of HS2 Ltd. Just when we need to see firm leadership and focus we have instead been offered confusion and division. His successor, Allan Cooke, said that HS2 Ltd is “working to deliver” services from London to Birmingham – the first phase of the line – from 2026, “in line with the targeted delivery date”. (“In line?”)

Just when HS2 finally looked like a done deal, we have another change at the top and promises about delivery are sounding vaguer. Rumours of delays and cost over-runs abound.

Some would like to see the case for HS2 lose out to HS3, the cross-Pennine east-west line. This is a bit like asking which part of a train is more important: its engine, or its wheels. We need both HS2 and HS3. We are currently left trying to build the fourth industrial revolution on infrastructure from the first.

If we are ever to equip our country with the ability to meet rising customer and freight demand, improve connectivity between our major conurbations and deliver the vision of the Northern Powerhouse, then we need the key infrastructure in place to do that.


There are no shortcuts. Ministers clearly believe there are. The second piece of disappointing news is that officials at the Department for Transport have already confirmed to the freight industry that any HS3 line will not be electrified, the Yorkshire Post reports.

This is a classic false economy. The renaissance of the Liverpool Dockside – now called Superport – is undergoing a £1bn investment, enabling it to service 95 per cent  of the world’s largest container ships, opening up faster supply chain transit for at least 50 per cent  of the existing UK container market. Why squander this immense opportunity with a cut-price rail system?

Without the proper infrastructure, the North of England will never fulfil its potential, leaving our economy lop-sided and under-utilised for another generation. This is not provincial jealousy. Building a rail network that’s fit for purpose for both passenger and freight will remove millions of car journeys from the road and make our national economy more productive. It will also be cleaner, cheaper and more reliable. Our European neighbours have long understood the catalytic effect of proper connectivity between cities.

Similarly, linking together towns and key cities across the North of England is a massive prize that will boost growth, create jobs and provide a counterweight to Greater London, easing pressures on the capital and building resilience into our national economy.

To realise this vision, we need the finance and political commitment. Confirmation that the government is pushing ahead with HS3 – as well as HS2 – is now sorely needed.

With Brexit looming and all the uncertainly it brings in its wake, it is even more pressing to have clarity around long-term investment decisions about our critical infrastructure. Given the investment, the North will seize the chance.

But until ministers are serious, I have a city to run.

Joe Anderson is the elected Labour mayor of Liverpool.