Today is the London Underground's 161st anniversary, but it is unlikely many will be in a celebratory mood.
The London Underground is the oldest transport system in the world, opening in 1863 with steam locomotives. It has since extended to a network which is 408 kilometres long, transporting Londoners across the length and breadth. It’s no wonder then that the mere prospect of industrial action causes such widespread disruption in the capital.
Just this week, tube workers came perilously close to a week-long strike over pay. An eleventh-hour intervention from Mayor of London Sadiq Khan saw the industrial action postponed, however the mayor now finds himself facing difficult questions over where the £30 million being made available will be funded.
Khan may have kept the union barons at bay for now, but how long will it be until commuters in the capital face the prospect of more disruption? After all, let’s not forget that the transport body has faced a turbulent few years - most notably, during the covid crisis. Revenues remain stubbornly low and they have so far received six government bailouts. While investment in vital infrastructure is important, taxpayers need to be reassured that they are getting a return on that investment and that a helping hand doesn’t become a regular handout. Since 2020, the government has provided nearly £6.4 billion for Transport in London, yet these disputes still rage on.
To add insult to injury is the fact that the unions behind this disruption are effectively subsidised with public money. A staggering 881 members of TfL staff undertook trade union facility time in 2022-23 - the practice which sees employees devoting working hours to trade union duties. This alone cost the transport body £8 million; up from £7.1 million in 2021-22 and £6.4 million in 2020-21
How, then, can TfL become more financially sustainable, as the mayor once promised central government that it would be? Perhaps a fair way to provide pay rises to the lower-paid underground staff would be to consider the top-end. In 2022-23, 729 members of TfL staff received over £100,000 of total remuneration - an astronomical increase of 172 from 2021-22, which encompasses pay and perks that most commuters can only dream of! When the transport system is plagued with disruption and pay disputes, this top-heavy bill seems ripe for reform.
The best way to celebrate the anniversary of this revolutionary transport system would be to ensure that it is fit for the future. Instead of levying disproportionately high fare rises on commuters or going cap-in-hand to central government, the mayor should set his sights on the millions of pounds squandered to waste through gold-plated pay packets and unfair union practices.