Why don't the Tubes run all night?

When Boris Johnson stood to be mayor of London in 2008 his transport manifesto, called Getting Londoners Moving, included this on page five.

"I want the Tube to open for one hour later on Friday and Saturday nights, so Londoners can get home safely."

A modest proposal, you would have thought. Especially since this is precisely what happens in Paris, where the Metro usually shuts at 1.15am but stays open until 2.15am on Fridays and Saturdays. If a country notorious for the strength of its unions can negotiate such an arrangement in its capital, you would have thought that our Can Do mayor would have no trouble - especially since his election victory rested largely upon the votes of outer London, which has the most to gain by longer Tube hours.

And yet - judging by the fact that it hasn't happened - he has had trouble.

By way of limbering up on the subject, I contacted Transport for London to ask them in general terms about the justification for shutting the Tube. After all, London's night time economy would benefit hugely from a residual service, to say nothing of the issue of illegal cabs that prey on those who've missed the last train and the night office cleaners who can only afford to live in zone six. Catch them asleep, heads resting on their chests, on the first train in the morning to get an inkling of the real human cost of shutting the Tubes. How many hours' sleep have they lost waiting for that train?

Equally seriously, in terms of the impression London makes on visitors, there's the difficulty of getting to airports to catch an early morning flight. What's the point of being able to buy a budget airline ticket - and it is mainly budget airlines that depart early in the morning - when you have to add on the cost of a night in a hotel at the airport, or risk having your luggage stolen by stretching out in a sleeping bag near check-in desk?

It's also surprising how many British people who don't live in London believe, erroneously, that the Tubes run all night. I discovered this when 24hourlondon started its petition to the mayor to keep the Tube open and several friends from outside London whom I would have expected to know better, made exactly this point, appearing startled. The reasoning seemed to go: "Why have such a useful facility if you don't use it properly?" Why indeed?

Anyway. In response to my general question about Tube opening hours, I received this statement, from an extremely helpful TfL spokesperson.

"The Tube runs from around 5am to 1am during the week and Saturdays and from 7am to midnight on Sunday, 364 days of the year. Unfortunately it is not possible to run the Tube for 24 hours. Essential safety and maintenance works need to be carried out in the small window of time to enable engineers to walk through the tunnels each night to ensure tracks and signalling systems are safe and carry out necessary track works. Unlike some other Metros, we do not have twin tracks which would enable us to run services and carry out maintenance works continuously."

The Metro she was referring to could be the one in New York, which is one of four in the US to open 24 hours a day.

However, the nub of my reaction to the statement is this: I'm dubious about the rationale for closing up seven nights a week on the grounds of "safety and maintenance" because for as long as I can remember a large portion of the Tube system has also closed down every weekend for the same reason. It seems to me that this excuse is, quite simply, wearing a bit thin. While it's indisputable that an underground network that is, in places, Edwardian needs proper maintenance, I don't believe that it needs to close seven nights a week to achieve this. Nor do I believe that the convenience of its customers is at the forefront of its list of concerns, since a large portion of the network shuts up shop at the weekend, leaving Londoners and visitors bewildered and poring over maps.

I think that the Tube system has misplaced its priorities and needs to retrieve them. Public transport should be a service, not a privilege, for economic and civic reasons.

By the way, this photo was taken at 7.25am on a Sunday at Old Street station a few weeks back.

I was trying to get to Dublin and hadn't expected the underground to be quite so unyielding. Any how...

Christian Wolmar is a transport writer of many years' standing and I thought he might have something to offer on the subject. "When I was a kid there were occasional Sunday closures," he said. "But nothing like there is now. It might be to do with health and safety - it's difficult these days to work next to a track with trains running on it. But in all honesty I don't know how much of it is justified and how much of the closure is to do with money. Perhaps I'll never get to the bottom of it...

"I'm sure they don't need to close seven nights a week and I would have thought it would certainly be possible to make an exception for an extra hour or so on Friday and Saturday. But it would be in the hands of the engineers and they always tell me it would be very difficult. I've been pursuing it for some time but I always get the same answer, no matter who I speak to."

But isn't that a bit odd? I mean, on any given subject you usually get a spread of answers to the same question, for the simple reason that people's opinions differ.

"Perhaps it is suspicious that there's such a 'party line'. I don't know... Let me know if you hear anything different. But transport wisdom does change. I mean, look at night buses. Twenty years ago there were hardly any night buses and now there are night buses on nearly every route."

The official reaction from Boris Johnson's office to my question about how the manifesto pledge - and extra hour two nights a week - is coming along, was this. "The Mayor remains keen to introduce later running on the tube at weekends, and the measure will be in place for the 2012 Games as it is for special events such as New Year's Eve. However, due to the extensive upgrade process currently underway, the move cannot be brought in permanently in the near future. However, we are keeping this under review."

Which is a super-smooth way of reneging on the manifesto pledge.

I'm going to be pursuing this line of thought and intend to track down Ken Livingstone and Bob Kiley (the former CIA man who ran the underground for a seven figure salary for several years during Livingstone's tenure as mayor, making them one of London's more unlikely partnerships) to ask what forces are in play here.

Watch this space.

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  1. It's worth talking to engineers who are responsible for planning the maintenance work on the Tube to get a fair picture of what's going on. Judging by the trade journals I've perused over the past couple of years, the Tube has seen *decades* of under-investment (and the whole Metronet debacle), and they're just starting to catch up with what's needed to bring it up to the standard we'd expect, in terms of both safety and reliability, and the people actually on/under the ground are acutely aware that they have a lot to do with *very* limited time available.

    Closing at weekends is the single most irritating thing in all this, but it starts to make sense when you bear in mind that if you *can't* close at weekends, then you can't possibly start any job that will take more than 2 hours to complete, allowing for the workmen to get on site, safely shut everything down, do the work, then clean out safely in time to re-open in the morning. The penalties for getting any part of this wrong are not slight.

    Yes, it's annoying and frustrating, but the Tube simply wasn't built with the usage it's being put to in mind. It's running at something like three times its design capacity, and it's reliable enough that yes, we bitch and moan, but nine times out of ten we don't think about it. That's an astonishing achievement.

  2. Thanks for being my first comment on this blog.

    That's all very rational, but it doesn't help much when I get stuck on the wrong side of town in the middle of the night :-)

  3. Well said Emma.. You might ask one Mr Bob Crow. Lovely man..


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