“London is already a 24-hour city, and thanks to the huge investment to modernise the Underground, we are now rolling out a 24-hour Tube to match.” This was the claim from Transport for London (TfL) when they announced the launch of a night tube service in time for September 2015 and the Rugby World Cup. And yet the rugby fans have been and gone, and New Zealand have flown home with the trophy once again in their luggage and the night tube remains a thing of dreams. So what happened? In this feature, SmartRail World’s Sarah Wright explores the promises, potential and the problems that have been posed by the awaited introduction of a 24 hour tube service in London. And looks at how other metros have gone through the night.
After a period of big promotion followed by bigger problems, and although officially ‘deferred’, plans for the London night tube are clearly laid out on the Transport for London (TfL) website. The TfL plan is to open five of its tube lines covering 144 of its stations, for 24 hours on a Friday and Saturday; plans that have arisen directly from the 70% increase in demand for late night trains since 2000. In brief the service would connect central and wider London from dusk until dawn, running trains at least every twenty minutes, cut travel time, and support London’s night time economy and those enjoying and working in it.
When asked ‘why now for the launch?' TfL stated: “The new service has been made possible thanks to the continued modernisation of significant parts of the Underground network and improved levels of reliability… [24hr service will] help maintain London's status as a vibrant and exciting place to live, work and visit.”
For many a 24 hour tube seems like a step in the right direction, saving Londoners and tourists alike both time and money – giving them a safe and reliable way to get home after a late night at the weekend. Yet, as we all know little seems to have gone to plan.
None of the unions involved were opposed to the Night Tube per se but were dismayed at the way they see it has been attempted to be implemented. And in response the three main unions - Unite, The Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT), and Transport Salaried Staffs Association (TSSA) – led a series of strikes in the Summer which stopped TfL’s plans for a night tube in time for the Rugby World Cup (image left: commuters attempting to enter Oxford Circus Underground Station before the strike closes it). The focus on the union opposition is built around a few core objections:
- They argue the strikes are part of an ongoing battle over pay and working conditions, a way of protecting the staff’s work-life balance and safety.
- They say the action is also a response to the number of jobs that have been cut, despite the largest number of passengers traveling in London ever known.
- They feel the night tube project is ‘flawed’ and has simply been planned to benefit the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, over anyone else.
- An offer regarding extra pay that came in from TfL came with the caveat that it had to be accepted in two hours, nowhere near enough time for 20,000 union members to be balloted on it.
After the initial strikes in July 2015 it was reported that Steve Griffiths, London Underground’s Chief Operating Officer, said of the strikes: “We have made a very fair offer to the unions that includes pay rises and bonuses for all, and guarantees to protect work-life balance. With the drivers, station staff and other roles which we have recruited for the Night Tube, it is also creating over 500 jobs. We now ask them to engage properly in negotiations to get past this dispute and deliver the Night Tube that London needs. We remain ready to talk at any time.” Despite attempts to compromise, union leaders have continued to warn against the implementation of the London night tube and have rallied staff into several strikes since, still claiming that any attempt to push through the night tube would eradicate TfL’s workers home lives.
On August 28th 2015, the launch of the Night Tube was officially deferred. The statement said it will “allow time for an agreement to be reached to avoid further strikes and begin all-night services later this autumn.” But in mid-November we are no nearer a night tube for London.
The woes caused by London’s proposed weekend night tube may leave you thinking that this was a completely novel idea, that surely nowhere else runs a 24 hour night service? Then you take a moment to stop and think, what about New York? Copenhagen? Stockholm? Vienna? Berlin? Chicago? What do all of these cities have in common? You guessed it, they run a 24 hour metro service, if not every day then at least on the weekends. It is true that Copenhagen only opened its metro in 2002, has tracks built for 24 hour service and has driverless trains so it seems an obvious choice for them to run their metro at every hour of the day.
Maybe, it is unsurprising that London tube workers do not want to run trains all day, their lines are not built with that in mind it and their trains are certainly not driverless. New York on the other hand, also has an old system but since it opened in 1904 the NYC subway has run 24 hours a day – perhaps contributing New York being the City that never sleeps. These cities all run a night service, meaning their residents can travel safely and cheaply.
As SmartRail World reported back in 2014, “The ‘Night Tube’ has certainly become a feature almost expected for metropolitan capital cities around the world, and there is no doubt that businesses, commuters and tourists will greatly benefit from the freedom to travel around the city at all hours.”
Despite its negative associations, the London night tube, would no doubt be of benefit to many of its residents, workers and tourists. When its launch was announced by Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, he argued that investments and upgrades had made the vision of a 24 hour service at a weekend possible – that he was excited for what the project meant for the future of London. Mike Brown, managing director of London Underground spoke of the half a million Londoner’s that already use the tube after 10pm on Fridays and Saturdays, saying the project would be “a historic step in our modernisation of London Underground.”
As has been made clear, the unions’ response was at the other end of the scale. Mick Cash, RMT general secretary was reported saying: “the truth is that the mayor threw this plan in as a diversion from his massive cuts and closures programme that will axe a thousand staff and decimate services and safety.”
So, what does the future for London’s night tube look like? With the 12th September, the original start date of the London night tube, come and gone, it now seems unlikely that the 24 hour service will begin until early next year at the earliest. The “truth” it seems, is no one really knows when, or if the London night tube will become a reality, or what the response will be.
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