It’s 2015 and we don’t have hoverboards; it’s September and we don’t have the Night Tube; it’s 5pm and I can’t count on my commuter train running on time. Public transport in the UK seems in recent years to have upped the ante when it comes to over-promising and under-delivering.But as well as asking ‘Why is it late?’, there are some transport projects where we should be asking “Should we be doing this at all?”
With major infrastructure projects like HS2 and Crossrail, the idea that improving our network will benefit the country is not in dispute. What is controversial however is that both projects are perceived not only as benefiting some British passengers more than others, but also as benefiting those who are already served very well by current transport services. I think we can add to this list the Night Tube as a third case in point.
The plan to run London Underground services overnight has already been plagued with controversy due to the reluctance of tube drivers and other workers to undertake night shifts that were not written into an agreed contract. But another question for me is whether improving night services in these areas of London should really be our top investment priority.
While private transport operators will be driven by commercial imperatives, Transport for London, as a government body must also run its network as a public service: in other words it should be driven by what people need, as well as what makes money. And the areas of London where the Night Tube would run are served by the most reliable night-time transport in the capital and the UK as a whole. The areas covered by the Northern, Central or Piccadilly (and other) lines already also benefit from cheap and frequent night buses covering a wide range of routes.
Beyond the capital too, there are many areas which lack night-time services. The research we conduct for transport operators all over the UK shows that the provision of regular, reliable transport, and safety when travelling at night, are among passengers’ top concerns. There may be fewer passengers travelling at night in Bristol, Manchester or Glasgow, but they also have far fewer alternatives: across all transport modes, services are generally less frequent, stop running earlier in the evening, and have less geographical reach even when they are running. Wouldn’t it be cheaper, easier and more democratic to focus on extending the provision of night time trains, buses or trams in these cities – before we accelerate the quality and quantity of services to those who already get the best?
TfL has of course done some research to demonstrate that there is a certain level of passenger demand for a night tube. But any cost-benefit analysis looking at mode transfer (i.e. how many passengers would transfer from night buses to the tube) compared to new journeys (how many would take a night tube rather than staying home) is inevitably based heavily on speculation.
A bigger question, one perhaps more for the government than for TfL, is whether anybody has done a comparative analysis of how many net passenger-journeys would be added into the network in London, relative to how many net passenger-journeys would be added onto the network in Bristol, Manchester or Glasgow if money was invested there instead? Because that’s a large, complex research project, one possibly beyond the budget of a local government body, and beyond the remit of one only responsible for transport in London.
You can argue this case in terms of which service would add more net revenue (looking through a commercial lens), or which service would add more passenger-journeys (looking through a public service lens). But if you want to make an evidence-based decision in the interests of all UK passengers, not just those in London, you need to gather data on a national scale.