There has been criticism of Transport for London due to overcrowding on the London Underground and bus services. Passenger numbers are down significantly: by the end of last week there was a 70 per cent fall in the number of passengers on the tube and a 40 per cent reduction in passengers on the buses, compared to normal circumstances.

Despite that, there are significant problems. First of all, those of us familar with commuting in London can imagine that even with such reductions, the “social distancing ” guidelines of six and a half feet would be hard to maintain. Secondly, there has been a reduction in services. Last week, TfL announced:

“London buses will operate fewer services, but TfL’s extensive night bus network will continue to provide critical workers with a reliable night option on Friday and Saturday nights and throughout the week. Everyone is urged not to use public transport for anything other than essential journeys.

Following the Government’s advice to stop non-essential social contact, the Mayor of London has asked Transport for London (TfL) to make a number of changes to services to ensure a safe and reliable service to enable London’s critical workers who need to make essential journeys. The Mayor of London and TfL are urging all other customers to follow the Government’s advice and not make anything but essential journeys…40 London Underground (LU) stations that do not interchange with other lines will be closed until further notice….there will be no service on the Waterloo & City line… TfL will gradually reduce the frequency of other services across the TfL network to provide a service for critical workers to get to where they need to – ensuring that remaining services are not overcrowded. TfL is aiming to run Tube trains every 4 minutes in Zone 1, with the possibility that this will reduce further…..London Overground, TfL Rail, the DLR and London Trams will run fewer services.  

On the bus network, from Monday 23 March until further notice, a service similar to a Saturday will run….”

Some reduction in services would probably be inevitable. A number of TfL staff are already unavailable for work. Even though there is considerable overmanning, the tube unions are very powerful and would be resistant to showing flexibility to allow the service to be maintained. But the extent of the reduction in services is a choice, at least at this stage. The idea is to give people a “nudge” to stay at home – but not to close down the service entirely.

I can see that this might have some impact. Supposing, for example, that your nearest tube station is Holland Park. That has been closed so if you want the Circle Line you would have to walk a bit further (to Notting Hill Gate or Shepherd’s Bush) for your Central Line train. If the journey is necessary then you would – if it is not really necessary then it might discourage you.

What is harder to justify is the reduced frequency of trains for those who do feel they need to persist with travelling. My hunch is that overwhelmingly those Londoners who are working from home would do so, even if the trains were not less frequent. Often, indeed, they would be required to work from home by responsible employers.

But there are millions of “key workers” – that definition has rightly been broadened to include many in the private sector. They have not just the right, but the duty, to continue going into work for the benefit of us all. Should they be forced to put themselves and their families at risk being being obliged to use crowded buses and trains?

One option would be greater compulsion. Andrew Boff, a member of the London Assembly tells me:

“TfL have rightly reduced the tube services to Saturday frequencies. This should be enough for those who have no choice but to travel. But we’ve all been surprised by the number of people who, let’s face it, can’t all be key workers, commuting as though these were ordinary times. The Government doesn’t want to use compulsion, preferring that people adjust their behaviour out of consideration to those who are more vulnerable to the effects of Covid19. It appears that that concern is not as widespread as we first thought. You won’t meet many people more libertarian than I am, but in these critical times excessive social contacts are nothing short of a danger to many thousands of people. If it needs a law to protect them then so be it.”

Would such a draconian law be practical?

I am sure that the Mayor of London and his officials at TfL are concerned to save lives, with the power that they have. What makes these decisions so grim is that they involve a trade off. Could they end up doing more harm than good? The honest answer is that we don’t know. But it would seem to many of us that a mistake has probably been made. The frequency of trains and buses should be increased so that those key workers we rely on, are able to commute in safety