Sadiq Khan’s decision to implement a four-year fare freeze on Transport for London services was not “responsible”, transport secretary Grant Shapps said today.
Shapps made the comments when answering questions from the transport select committee about the decision to temporarily suspend free travel for under 18s as part of the government’s £1.6bn bailout of TfL.
He said that due to the decision to hold fares, the network operator had missed out on around £640m in fares revenue, leaving its finances vulnerable before the coronavirus crisis ravaged passenger numbers.
As a result of the pandemic, revenue from fares has dropped 90 per cent across the network, TfL revealed.
However, when asked whether the government’s decision to cut TfL’s £700m a year operating grant had contributed to the funding crisis, he hit back, saying:
“The deal was that the system would and should be able to pay for itself and indeed, I would argue, would have been able to, if it was doing the responsible thing that I’m afraid all of us have had to do in the wider transport network, which is to keep your prices up with inflation”.
He went on: “Now here we are asking the wider taxpayer to bail out over a billion pounds in part to make up for revenues which have failed to be collected.
“We might not be having this conversation about children’s access to TfL had that money being collected”.
As conditions of getting the funding, TfL was asked to suspend free travel for under 18s and Freedom Pass holders and reinstate the congestion charge in order to guarantee access to the funding.
The bailout has triggered a row between City Hall and Whitehall, with Khan accusing ministers of punishing Londoners for doing the right thing during the pandemic.
Khan has already called for free travel to be restored to schoolchildren, warning that taking it away would hit the capital’s poor the hardest and increase the cost for boroughs.
The decision to suspend free travel for certain groups is part of the government’s plan to keep manageable passenger levels on the capital’s public transport systems.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent social distancing rules, TfL can only run services at 13 to 15 per cent of their normal capacity.
A Mayor of London spokesperson said: “It is simply wrong to blame the fares freeze for the acute financial challenges TfL now faces which are a direct result of Covid-19.
“Before the pandemic the TfL fares freeze was encouraging more people to use public transport, helping cushion the impact of the wider subdued economy across the UK.
“Sadiq has ensured TfL was in a strong financial position since he was elected – reducing its operating deficit from £1.5bn to £200m and was on track to turn this into a surplus by 2022/23, and increasing its reserves to £2bn, despite London being the only city in Western Europe that gets no direct central government support for its transport network.