TfL’s Business Plan and Budgets – Financial Profligacy

The Mayor of London has published a Business Plan for TfL for the next five years plus a Budget for 2018/19– see https://tfl.gov.uk/corporate/publications-and-reports/business-plan. The Business Plan is much as outlined in his adopted Transport Strategy so he aims to get the proportion of journeys taken by walking, cycling or public transport up to 65% by 2024 when it’s about 63% today. That’s despite the recent lack of progress in achieving that goal as highlighted in our previous article on London travel trends here: https://tinyurl.com/ybtchctj

For east Londoners he is committing to progress that vanity project called the Rotherhithe bridge, but there should be new Woolwich ferry boats delivered in 2019, progress on the Silvertown Tunnel and the document mentions a budget for “renewal” of the Rotherhithe Tunnel.

But the bad news for all Londoners is that the Mayor intends that TfL will continue to run a big financial deficit until 2021. That date does of course coincide with the expansion of the ULEZ zone to the North/South Circular which will be providing more income and also the Elizabeth Line (Crossrail) should also be in operation by then which will also assist. There is a small surplus budgeted for in 2022/23.

Another item of bad news for all Londoners is that “proactive” street maintenance budgets will remain at zero so we will see more short-term and reactive patching. This is surely a short-sighted financial approach. Has the Mayor not heard of the phrase “a stitch in time saves nine”.

The delays to Crossrail and falling bus usage have been two causes of the short-term deficits but the Mayor continues to hobble himself with the promise he made to freeze public transport fares so as to get elected. The Mayor claims to have reduced “like-for-like” operating costs in the last two years but that is a claim that is difficult to verify and overall income/costs are what matter.

One consequence of this financial ineptitude is that TfL are having to borrow more money. Debt has been, and will continue to rise rapidly based on the budgets. It will be 175% of revenue in 2018/19 (revenue not profits note), and financing costs will be 7.5% of revenue in that year. That does not look like a sound financial strategy to anyone familiar with the financial world. The Mayor is just in the process of building up a big problem for his successor.

What is remarkable about the two aforementioned documents is the lack of detail on where the Mayor is actually spending money, e.g. the proposed capital expenditure. We just get headline titles such as £116 million to be spent on “Healthy Streets”, £80 million on “Air Quality”, £114 million on “Public Transport”, etc. There is also little detail on operational income and expenditure. The budget for 2018/19 has to be approved by the London Assembly and there is a bit more detail in this version submitted to them: https://tinyurl.com/y78cjoyq

So for example it shows (on page 37) that the introduction of the ULEZ (for central London only in 2019) will cost around £40 million. But the revenue from it seems to be just dumped into “other income” so it is impossible to evaluate the cost versus benefit of it.

Here are some simple questions one could ask that are not answered by these documents such as:

  • How much money is being spent on Cycle Superhighways, Quietways and other cycle projects?
  • How much does the Santander Cycle Hire scheme cost to run, or does it make a profit? What is being invested in expansion of that scheme?
  • How much is TfL spending on funding wide-area 20 mph schemes in local boroughs?
  • What will be the real costs and income from the ULEZ, both before and after expansion?

There is simply insufficient detail provided to answer these questions. These documents do not provide enough financial detail to judge the merits of the Mayor’s plans at all. One suspects a lot of dubious projects and expenditure are being concealed in these public relations documents.

But there is one thing for certain. There is no budget to improve the road network in London so as to increase capacity and reduce traffic congestion. With London’s population expanding, that is a serious omission.

Roger Lawson

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Drivers_London

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Emirates Cable Car, Bike Hire and TfL Finances

The London Evening Standard recently ran an article that suggested the Emirates Cable Car might be sold off or scrapped. The Cable Car runs across the Thames at Greenwich, cost about £60 million to build and opened in 2013. Passenger numbers have been lower than forecast with it mainly being used by tourists. I used it once but it’s a very slow means to get across the Thames at that point, even allowing for delays at the Blackwall Tunnel.

Does it lose money? According to the information provided by a recent FOI Act request, the numbers are as follows for the 12 months to Jan 2017: Income £9.2 million, Operating Costs: £6.0 million. But £3.3 million of the income comes from Emirates Airlines sponsorship under a deal that runs to 2021, so it barely breaks even ignoring the sponsorship money. Why an airline would wish to subsidise this slow and unreliable mode of transport (it frequently breaks down or has to stop in high winds) was never very clear.

On break-even if they don’t renew sponsorship it might be argued it is worth retaining, but obviously the construction cost will never be recovered, and even exceptional maintenance costs might be unaffordable. The Mayor and TfL have some tough decisions to make on this one.

The Standard also suggested that the Santander Bike Hire (formerly Barclays) might be scrapped to save money. It costs £21 million per year to run, of which TfL pays £3.6 million according to the Standard article. It might have encouraged more cycling in London, although users of these bikes are some of the worst behaved cyclists from my observations – perhaps because tourists unfamiliar with London traffic and road rules tend to use them. However, there are now some commercial alternatives who operate a “dockless”, pick up and drop off anywhere system. It might must be that after just a few years the technology is obsolescent.

Both subjects are of course under the spotlight because of the pressure on the Mayor’s Transport Budget where he has seriously miscalculated the funding needs and the impact of his past promises to his electorate. Another aspect that TfL are examining according to an FT article is the exemption from the London Congestion Charge (a.k.a. “tax”) for taxis and PHVs (mini-cabs). The latter have proliferated with such operators as Uber creating a lot more traffic congestion. Why they should be exempt was never very clear, although the argument is perhaps that they offer a public service similar to buses. But it’s not very clear why buses should be exempt either, particularly as they create a lot of congestion.

Bearing in mind the need for the Mayor to raise money, and the fact that he is threatening to cancel Uber’s licence, the expected outcome is surely going to be something like this: Yes we won’t cancel your licence after all but you’ll need to pay the Congestion Charge, or a specially large annual licence fee. Is that a deal?

Roger Lawson

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Drivers_London

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TfL to Lose £1 billion per Year

 “TfL expects £1bn deficit by next year”. That was the headline in an article in today’s Financial Times. Apparently they have seen an internal email written by finance director Patrick Doig that the organisation faced an operating loss of £968 million in 2018/19 which he said was “clearly not a sustainable position…”. The deficit in the current financial year is expected to be £785 million this year which shows how rapidly its position is being eroded.

There are several reasons given for this erosion in their financial position – the Mayor freezing public transport fares (estimated cost £640m) did not help, but the big problem is falling revenue from users. Both bus and underground journey numbers have been unexpectedly falling.

Is this because more people are not travelling, e.g. doing internet shopping and working from home? Or is it because they have chosen to travel by bike (usage is growing), or find it is as cheap and a lot more comfortable to call Uber? Or perhaps it’s because some London residents are selling up and moving to the country with house prices peaking in London, or returning to homes in the rest of Europe. Perhaps those French, Polish, Romanian and other residents are worried about their future after Brexit? Perhaps they just got tired of life in London, unlike Dr Johnson who did not have to suffer the mediocre standards in TfL’s public transport provision.

The Mayor has only recently published his Business Plan for the years to 2022/23 (see this article: https://abdlondon.wordpress.com/2018/01/17/tfl-business-plan-mayor-sadiq-khan-wants-more-money/ ). But you can see exactly why the Mayor is so keen to raise as much as £300 million from Londoners via the Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) charges. As we have said before, the ULEZ is about money, not about improving the health of the population or cleaning up London’s air.

A comment in the FT article was by Gareth Bacon, London Assembly Conservative Members, who said there was now “serious cause for concern” about Mr Khan’s “cavalier” financial stewardship of TfL.

Roger Lawson

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Drivers_London

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New Mayor’s First Acts

As readers will be aware, Sadiq Khan has been elected to Mayor of London, soundly beating Zac Goldsmith who ran a rather lacklustre campaign. The new Mayor has moved rapidly to implement some of his policy initiatives which includes a freeze on public transport fares for 4 years. Previously it was suggested that it would leave a £1.9bn hole in Transport for London’s budget but the Transport Commissioner, Mike Brown, says that he will deliver it. Exactly how is not yet clear but obviously TfL’s expenditure will be reduced and staff cut back, so support for local road safety and other schemes is likely to be reduced. Perhaps TfL could stop wasting money on speed cameras as one element of expenditure that has little benefit – for example the £15m alone proposed for average speed cameras on arterial London roads?

In addition to that financial gap, the new Mayor has also announced a new “Hopper Fare” that will enable bus passengers to take two trips for the price of one so long as they are both within one hours. This will be introduced in September this year. And what is the cost of this? Another £30m hit to TfL’s budget it is estimated but it will benefit a huge number of people according to Mike Brown.

Needless to point out perhaps that Mr Khan is the son of a bus driver. Is this going to be regime for bus users, whereas Boris’s became one for cyclists? We shall see no doubt.

Another initiative already announced is an attack on air pollution (Mr Khan apparently suffers from asthma so has a personal interest in the matter), with a formal policy consultation in weeks on a number of measures. These include extending the Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) to the North/South Circular Roads and bringing it forward to be earlier than 2020; introducing ULEZ standards for HGVs from 2020, planning for a diesel scrappage scheme (assuming central Government will support it); introducing ULEZ standards earlier for double-decker buses and cleaning them up in outer zones plus putting cleaner buses on certain corridors. It also seems likely that the “Boris Bus” (aka. New Routemasters) will be replaced for new orders by other vehicles.

Such changes will of course assist in plugging the budget gap because people may not find it easy to change to compliant vehicles quickly enough so will end up paying the surcharge for non-compliant vehicles. Oddly enough the people most affected by these changes are likely to be Mr Khan’s own election supporters – namely the poorer section of the community that is running older cars.

Comment: air pollution in London is certainly a cause for concern but it has been steadily improving. Diesel vehicles are many times better than they used to be but it takes time for the installed base of vehicles to change. However the main problem is not private cars, but buses, HGVs, LGVs and taxis. In addition transport is only one element that makes up air pollution in London. Construction alone is a major factor, particularly when transport associated with it is also high.

Unfortunately the impact of air pollution on medical problems and life expectancy is grossly exaggerated by the advocates of banning vehicles. Any proposals to reduce air pollution by restricting the use of certain vehicles may have little impact in practice and have enormous financial costs. Let us hope that the proposed public consultation gives us a proper cost/benefit analysis of the proposals that are on the table before asking our opinions. There was certainly none done for the original ULEZ proposals which included many vehicles in the restrictions which would have negligible impact on air pollution.

Roger Lawson