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UK systems may face ‘temporary closures’

Transport operators have been hit hard by travel restrictions and social distancing measures that have seen massive ridership reductions. Image courtesy of N. Pulling

The Urban Transport Group (UTG) of UK city region transport authorities has warned of “rapid and deep cuts” to bus and light rail services without a robust plan for continued Government support to meet pandemic-related losses.

In its new report, The COVID-19 Funding Gap: The Case for Continuing Support for Urban Public Transport, the UTG posits a “best case scenario” where the widespread availability of a COVID-19 vaccine in the next few months will allow relaxation of social distancing measures. An associated removal of travel restrictions could see transport demand return gradually to “no more” than 85% of its pre-lockdown levels by mid-2021.

A “plausible worst case scenario” suggests that if restrictions remain until the end of 2021, ridership will reach a maximum of 65% with demand fluctuating significantly as local lockdowns are introduced and relaxed.

If financial support is not sustained, the group argues, services could be reduced, planned fare increases postponed, and light rail and tramway revenues would continue to fall. With limited scope to reduce costs on rail-based systems, some may even face temporary closure.

Stephen Edwards, UTG Chair and Executive Director of the South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Executive, said: “Without continuing support we face drastic cuts in bus and light rail services. Reductions in services on this scale would have devastating consequences, with many essential workers unable to get to where they need to be, as well as delivering a further blow to the ability of our local economies to weather the pandemic and recover in the aftermath.”

Read the report in full at www.urbantransportgroup.org

Meanwhile, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has called for an urgent long-term funding settlement for Transport for London. The capital’s transport authority is currently earning GBP5.2m/day, compared to GBP13m/day before the pandemic, due to continuing low ridership.

In an official submission to the UK Treasury, Mr Khan requested GBP5.65bn (EUR6.2bn) to keep services running for the next 18 months; this includes GBP750m (EUR827m) to complete the Elizabeth line (see also page 417).

The submission added that cuts in central government grants to TfL in recent years have made it more reliant on fares than any other transport authority in the world and that current social distancing restrictions make it impossible to cover the shortfall in revenues without support.

A GBP1.6bn (EUR1.76bn) emergency grant and loan package was agreed in May (see TAUT 991). Backdated to 1 April, this came with a requirement to increase fares by RPI+1% in 2021, as well as the capital’s congestion charge, and give two seats on the TfL board, its finance committee and its programmes and investment committee to government appointees. This package expires on 17 October.

“The choice is stark,” Mr Khan said. “A safe and effective transport network that continues to deliver for Londoners and support jobs in the capital and across the UK, or a government-led
spiral of disinvestment that sees vital infrastructure age and fail – wasting hundreds of millions of pounds, stalling economic recovery, and taking us back to the deteriorated transport network of the ’80s and ’90s.”