The Department for Transport (DfT) has given Transport for London (TfL) another funding bailout, which guarantees its operations for the next six months. The bailout is the latest in a series of similar packages negotiated throughout the pandemic, all of which have been an opportunity for the government to attempt to add more strings to the deal.
The Tories have described the latest deal, which totals £1.08 billion, as “conditions-based funding”. The deal includes a commitment for TfL to make £300 million of “savings” - i.e., cuts – in 2021/22, and “identify new or increased sources of revenue for TfL of between £0.5 billion to £1 billion each year from 2023”. As part of previous funding settlements, TfL already committed to return to being “self-financing” by 2023.
The current package also requires TfL to “work collaboratively with DfT on a joint programme for implementing higher levels of automatic train operation”, and “make progress towards the conversion of at least one London Underground line to full automation but with an on-board attendant.” This refers to the Tories' anti-union dream of “driverless trains”, an expensive folly which would require an enormous financial outlay, to completely refurbish rolling stock and signalling systems on non-automatic lines, before it began to “save” any money. Driverless trains are an ideological artefact that have nothing to do with improving safety or efficiency, and everything to do with the Tories' desire to take on organised labour.
Mayor Sadiq Khan has said in a statement that the “savings” and revenue increases the package demands are essentially undeliverable. Khan's statement also explicitly opposes the implementation of driverless trains. Even senior TfL bosses have previously said driverless trains are unrealistic and unnecessary.
Another condition of the bailout is for TfL to “review” what the Tories call its “generous pension scheme.” Like the demand for “savings”, this means cuts. The main unions organising across TfL all have policy to resist detrimental changes to terms and conditions. Drivers' union Aslef has a live industrial action ballot mandate, valid until September. With previous financial audits, including an “independent financial review” commissioned by Khan and the TfL Board, also strongly recommending pension “reform”, some attack on pension terms is almost inevitable. This may well take the form of closing the existing scheme to new starters. However the attack comes, unions must fight back – ideally pre-emptively, by balloting as soon as possible, rather than waiting to mount reactive campaigns once cuts and reforms have already been announced.
The wider context is the Tories' long war on TfL funding. Its central government grant was run down from 2015, finally being abolished entirely in 2018. This has left TfL vastly more reliant on fare revenue than any other metro system of its type, meaning that, when fare revenue (rightly and necessarily) collapsed during the pandemic, so did TfL's finances. Short-term bailouts with strings attached is not a sustainable way to fund a major transport system. TfL needs proper, stable funding from central government. The whole labour movement, including the Labour Party, must mount a political campaign to fight for that funding.