This isn’t the first time timetables have been extended. In 1902, the Metropolitan Railway Company ran trains until 2.30am to cater for King Edward VII’s coronation celebrations. During his reign, late night “theatre specials” ran until 1am to whisk theatregoers back to the suburbs. And for decades, the Tube has run all nighters on New Year’s Eve.
But in these latest plans, late night services would be regular – a huge breakthrough. For years, maintenance and industrial relations have made night running problematic and expensive. Ken Livingstone tried to introduce it. Boris included it in his 2008 transport manifesto. But until recently not much changed.
International observers may wonder what all the fuss is about. Other cities, including Chicago and New York, run services twenty-four hours a day. Berlin operates all night at weekends. On the Paris Metro, services run well past 1am. London’s last trains run from central London at 12.40am.
So why has it taken until now for more concrete plans to be floated? Perhaps crucially, the Olympics raised public expectations. During London 2012, the Tube ran an hour later every night of the week. It operated earlier on Sundays and clocked up hours of reliable service. London’s transport system showed that improvements can be delivered. Commentators rightly asked, if later Tubes and smoother traffic were possible for athletes and spectators, why not every day for Londoners?
Part of the answer also lies in the huge levels of investment that are starting to pay off. Catching up on years of underfunding, new track and electronic signalling systems should be generating efficiencies. If fewer hours are required for inspections and repairs, there is more time for trains to run. In addition, Tube drivers and other staff may well be privately enthusiastic. There could also be fare box benefits too.
London’s two mayors have delivered significant improvements to the transport system. Smart ticketing (Oysters), congestion charging and the Boris bike hire scheme have proven successful; new Routemasters are on the way. For years, extending hours on the Tube was thought to be too difficult. Londoners and their city representatives are choosing to disagree. There should now be a continued push to tackle long-standing obstacles to how London moves. Taming buses in Oxford Street, building new river crossings to the east and running the Tube and buses on Christmas day all come to mind.
London faces fierce rivalry for investment and talent. Later running on the Tube at weekends is the sort of quality of life factor that will help to keep the city competitive. Thanks to the Olympics, it may be a Games legacy that Londoners finally get to keep.
Alexander Jan is global head of Arup’s transactional advice team for transport.