London’s historical ‘Tube’ seeks post-COVID cash - GulfToday

London’s historical ‘Tube’ seeks post-COVID cash

Commuters with and without face coverings get off a Transport for London (TfL) underground train in London.

Commuters with and without face coverings get off a Transport for London (TfL) underground train in London. Agence France-Presse

The pandemic, which left London’s transport system deserted for months on end, has decimated revenues and sparked an ongoing feud between the city’s mayor and the UK government over funding current shortfalls.

Transport for London (TfL), which runs the British capital’s underground “Tube” network and buses, has received billions of pounds from central government in the last two years to stay afloat.

That followed passenger numbers across the network slumping as people were repeatedly told to stay home to stop the spread of Covid-19.

Now, as numbers pick up again with the easing of all restrictions, the Conservative government has urged London’s Labour mayor to find a sustainable funding model for state-owned TfL.

The issue has come into sharper focus as central government subsidies maintaining the current level of service are set to expire without renewal on February 4.

Mayor Sadiq Khan has raised the spectre of service cuts or even the closure of a tube line without new funding support, arguing TfL is “fundamental to the success of the capital”.

“It is so important that the government urgently comes forward with the long-term funding TfL desperately needs so we can keep services running and deliver much-needed improvements to our transport infrastructure,” he warned earlier this month.  The Labour party mayor, re-elected last year for a second term, is reluctantly proposing to raise the compulsory housing tax in the next budget, which he has said would “unfairly punish Londoners for the way the pandemic has hit our transport network”.

He wants the government to inject around £1.7 billion to fund TfL until April 2023.

However, the Department for Transport has said Khan is responsible for getting the system “back onto a sustainable financial footing in a way that is fair to taxpayers, rather than continuing to push for bailouts”.

“We will continue to discuss further funding requirements with TfL and the Mayor,” a spokesperson told AFP.

The standoff reflects the inevitable rivalry between Khan, touted as a potential future Labour leader, and the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, himself a former London mayor.

Both have accused each other of mismanaging the capital’s extensive transport system. TfL notes the pandemic has “devastated” its accounts, with fares revenue falling by 95 percent at the height of the first coronavirus wave in 2020.

It has been forced to dip into its cash reserves to keep services running while going cap in hand to the government for support.

Johnson’s administration has already pledged £4 billion (4.8 billion euros, $5.4 billion) in subsidies to keep the system running, as well as £600 million in loans. The financial crisis has also affected the capital’s new east-west Crossrail route, formally known as the Elizabeth Line, with the stretched budget adding to delays and costs.

Other global cities have faced similar struggles, including Ile-de-France Mobilites (IDFM) in the Paris area, which needed government support in its 2020 and 2021 budgets. Meanwhile in the United States, “strong” financial support packages passed by Congress and the White House helped replace ticket revenues lost from lockdowns, according to Paul Skoutelas, head of the American public transportation association, an industry organisation.

But TfL, which gets nearly two-thirds of its operating income from fares — a much higher proportion compared to New York or Paris, where it is more like 40 percent — has been left especially exposed. “Pre-COVID, TfL was largely self-sustained,” explained Taku Fujiyama, who leads University College London’s railway research group, noting it received no major central government grants.

“Some cost-cutting measures are on the table now,” he said, adding dramatic line closures were unlikely but minor service changes “might happen”.

“TfL needs to play a delicate game,” Fujiyama told AFP. “The central government would not give blank cheques, and the TfL would need to demonstrate their effort, whilst the mayor knows that dramatic service reduction would be politically costly.”

With the threat from the Omicron variant now receding, passengers are returning to the system, aiding revenues but still leaving a large gap to plug. Weekday passenger numbers were at 50 percent of pre-pandemic levels on the Tube and 70 percent on buses in mid-January, with TfL expecting them both to reach 80 percent this year.

The company has said it is exploring a number of ways to boost income, including through efficiency gains, commercial property projects and consultancy services. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Boris johnson has been handed an investigator’s long-awaited report into lockdown-breaching government parties, the government said Monday - but findings about the most serious allegations have been withheld pending a police investigation.

The Cabinet Office said senior civil servant Sue Gray “has provided an update on her investigations to the Prime Minister.”

Johnson’s office says the report will be published and the prime minister will address Parliament about its findings later Monday.

But the “update” is unlikely to tell the full story about claims that have rocked Johnson’s government. Some of Gray’s findings are being withheld at the request of police, who have launched a separate investigation into whether several of the almost 20 gatherings she investigated broke COVID-19 laws. Allegations that the prime minister and his staff flouted restrictions imposed on the country to curb the spread of the coronavirus have caused public anger, led some Conservative lawmakers to call for johnson’s resignation and triggered intense infighting inside the governing party.

Johnson has denied personal wrongdoing and said he has “absolutely no intention” of resigning.

But Johnson’s grip on power has been weakened by allegations that he and his staff flouted restrictions they imposed on the country in 2020 and 2021 to curb the spread of the coronavirus with “bring your own booze” office parties, birthday celebrations and “wine time Fridays.”

Publication of Gray’s report was delayed when the Metropolitan Police force launched its own investigation last week into the most serious alleged breaches of coronavirus rules.

The force said it had asked for Gray’s report to make only “minimal reference” to the events being investigated by detectives “to avoid any prejudice to our investigation.”

Johnson’s opponents accused the government of trying to water down a report that could trigger an attempt to oust the prime minister by his own party. Some Conservative lawmakers say they will push for a no-confidence vote if Gray finds Johnson was at fault or lied to Parliament about his actions.

It’s unclear whether Gray’s full findings will be published once the police investigation is finished.

Johnson, meanwhile, was trying to change the subject from his personal woes, marking the second anniversary of Brexit on Monday by touting economic opportunities outside the European Union.

The UK officially left the now 27-nation bloc on Jan. 31, 2020, though it remained part of the EU’s economic structures for another 11 months.


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