Tackling public transport issues in London

Most people agree that London public transport is overcrowded and expensive. To tackle these two problems requires a two-pronged strategy, one on capacity, and one on costs.

1) Tube capacity

The conventional method of tackling capacity would be to increase the length of the trains and to increase the frequency of train services.

The length of trains are limited by the length of platforms. This isn’t a problem to overcome on the larger train stations in outer parts of London zones, but for stations in inner london zones space is a particular problem, particularly those stations with underground platforms. That’s not to say that this is impossible, except that it will be very expensive indeed. Every station will need to have its platforms lengthened, by infrastructural change in widening the tunnel platforms, and by annexing more land around the stations in order to extend the platforms. Such a project is far too expensive for the short and possibly even medium term, but such an investment will become inevitable for the capital to go forward.

The frequency of the train services is limited by signalling technology. This is usually the most cost-effective option for TfL, only requiring upgrades to software and electrical hardware, rather than requiring expensive building works. Although cost-effective, this still requires substantial investment. But more importantly, there is a physical limit to how frequency train services can operate, so the fears are that current investment has all but exhausted the possible electrical upgrades to improve train services. During the busiest times, train services are only minutes apart on most lines.

An unconventional and unexplored option to manage capacity is to restructure the train operating routes and schedules. Much of the problem with capacity is not the frequency of trains, but that passengers are struggling to fit on the train when it does arrive. But Tube passengers who live on the outer fringes of London will be aware that, apart from the busiest lines, it is often not a problem finding space on the train even during rush hour. The problem is that as the train travels into the centre, it picks up more and more passengers along the way, so that commuters near the centre often find trains already packed even when they do arrive. So this is my solution: restructure the train operating schedule so that trains are zone specific, allowing the Tube to increase the frequency of train schedules within the centre and gradually decrease train frequencies the further out of London you go. For example, trains limited to Zone 1, will not venture outside into Zone 2 to pick up passengers, increasing the frequency at which Zone 1 passengers can find space on trains. Similarly Zone 2 trains will not be picking up passengers from Zone 3 outwards, so that Zone 2 passengers will not be crowded out by passengers accumulated all along the way from zone 6.

2) Tube fares

Economically, the lowest price of any product or service is to operate it ‘at cost’. This is the lowest you can drive down the price of tickets without requiring taxpayer subsidising train passenger fares. To determine this number, we basically sum up the total annual costs of operating and maintaining the Tube, and divide it by the number of passengers per year. This calculation gets more complicated when you take into consideration TfL zoning, but the basic same principle can apply and extended across the whole fare range.

However, operating the Tube service at cost will eliminate any profit margins, thus preventing TfL from accumulating funds to reinvest in Tube infrastructure. In this case, I would argue investment for infrastructure should be funded by the taxpayer. This is justifiable because improvements to the public transport network benefits everyone in London, not just the passengers. Businesses will benefit by improving the ease of customers getting to their goods and services, and even residents who never use public transport will benefit by the reduction in usage of personal transport, which means things like less air pollution and less traffic jams. Thus the improvements to quality of life and to the general economy due to investment in public transport infrastructure should be justifiable to all taxpayers.

3) Bus fares

As with Tube fares, buses on TfL should be operated at cost. But unlike the Tube network, the Bus network has a far greater number of stops, and journeys are far less quantifiable. As the only data that’s currently available is the number of passengers, not distance for each passenger, the only viable solution is to take the average cost of each passenger across the whole bus network. As with the Tube network, operating the bus network at cost would require taxpayer subsidy for any investment costs. However, given that the infrastructure for the bus network is much simpler in comparison, consisting only of buses, stops, and depots, these costs will be much lower compared to funding required to invest in the Tube, and much more affordable and more easily justifiable to the tax-paying public.

Another thing to point out is that vanity projects like the New Routemaster are complete waste of money. Tried and tested off-the-shelf buses already exist and are proven to work. Even better, the R&D of these buses would have been funded by the companies which make them, rather than by the taxpayer. Let the private companies take the risk of innovating, public services should always be about the most economical solution.

4) Bus capacity

The first thing to point out is that not every bus route has the same capacity requirements. Extensive data analysis is required to determine the passenger volume patterns, which would enable us to plan the appropriate bus size and schedule frequency for every route. This review should be done annually, to minimise road congestion and wasted fuel due to empty buses. Routes which are underutilised should be reviewed so that the route or schedule can be amended, to balance the service to the public against the economic viability of operating these routes.

On overutilised routes, the conventional solution is to increase schedule frequency and bus capacity (such as double-decker or extra-long bendy buses). However, extra-long buses and increasing schedule frequency contributes to congestion. A less conventional solution would be to have express versions on each bus route, where the express bus would decrease travelling times for those on long routes by stopping less frequently, perhaps only at major well-connected transport hubs.

Final word:

These are the solutions I would implement through Transport for London, if you were to elect me Mayor of London. Pity I am not currently in the running!


Author: Hoong-Wai

I'm a sinner. I have an interest in economics, philosophy, politics, science, sociology, technology, theology (in alphabetical order). I care about truth and justice. I can be a contrarian.

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