On 12 September, London Underground (LU) will start a 24-hour Tube service on Fridays and Saturdays, joining other cities such as New York, Chicago, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Berlin and Sydney, which run similar services.
A considerable amount of hype has surrounded this development, but how will it work, and why now?
The Transport for London (TfL) argument for a night service on the Tube stems from increasing demand – particularly over the weekend – for later and later trains, with figures suggesting this has risen by almost 70% since 2000. Services from central London currently finish around 00:30am.
Tfl claims that late night use has increased at double the rate of day-time trips, with over half a million using the Tube after 10pm on Friday and Saturdays. This is equivalent to 8% of all trips. At the same time, the use of night buses has gone up by 173% since 2000.
Speaking in June, London Underground’s Gareth Powell said: “As well as making life easier for people, the Night Tube will also boost London’s night-time economy – supporting thousands of jobs and stimulating hundreds of millions of pounds in economic growth.”
But, what exactly will the Night Tube look like? At the time of writing it is expected to run, on average, every ten minutes on the Jubilee and Victoria lines. The Central line will operate on a similar timeframe on the central section, between White City and Leytonstone, although the frequency will decrease to every 20 minutes for the line’s eastern section between Ealing Broadway and White City, and the north-western section between Leytonstone and Loughton / Hainault.
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The role of the human being in the public transport system will continue to diminish.
The Northern line will have trains running on average every eight minutes between Morden in south London and Camden Town, and every 15 minutes for the north London section from Camden Town to High Barnet / Edgware.
Piccadilly trains between Cockfosters and Heathrow Terminal 5 running every ten minutes will complete the night service for the time being, although expansions could follow on the Metropolitan, Circle, District, and Hammersmith & City lines depending on other modernisation programmes currently underway.
According to Peter White, professor of public transport systems at the University of Westminster, opening the Tube over night is the right thing to do in respect to the growth in night bus use.
“[It] forms a logical follow-up to the very strong growth in all-night bus use in recent years, especially [on] Fridays and Saturdays,” he says. “[It will] enable greater capacity to be provided and [produce] faster journeys – especially to and from outer suburbs – for those using these services.”
An underground revolution
While the idea of a Night Tube appeals to many in principle, there are a number of operational considerations that have as yet received little mainstream attention.
The first of these is fares. TfL claims they will charge standard off-peak prices – which varies depending on the zone a customer is travelling in. Daily travelcards will be valid on the day of purchase and for a journey starting before 04:30am the following day.
However, perhaps one of the key concerns for passengers and staff alike is safety. In response, it has been agreed that British Transport Police will draft in more than 100 officers at the 144 Night Tube stations, and while the impact on crime of a Night Tube is at present unquantifiable, it should factor strongly in minds at TfL.
White, however, believes that passengers could see theTtube as “more secure” than night buses – “especially waiting at kerbside stops compared with a well-lit station”.
Another area that has flown under the radar is the impact that additional services will have on local residents in terms of noise, especially factoring in the many maintenance services that are undertaken through the night.
In terms of noise, TfL is assessing the issue with local authorities’ environmental health officers before the slated 12 September start date, and claims on its website that work will continue once the Night Tube opens for business.
Moving to maintenance, those lines where the Night Tube runs will have to switch from a Sunday to Thursday schedule, with a moratorium on weekend closures starting the week after 12 September and ending around Christmas.
Despite these hurdles, undoubtedly the biggest challenge facing the success of night services is staffing, which White classes as an “acceptability” problem.
Staffing is the key issue
The unions showed their displeasure with the plans in their current form with a strike on 8 July.
According to ASLEF – which represents train drivers and operators – the unhappiness stemmed from what was deemed as plans to push new working patterns on staff.
Speaking before the strike, ASLEF’s district organiser Finn Brennan said: “Our members are entitled to a family life and to some sort of work/life balance. We aren’t opposed to all night services but we want them introduced in a fair and sensible way which rewards staff for their hard work and the contribution they make to the success of the LU.”
In response, LU boss Mike Brown insisted that the operator was “not asking staff to work unlimited nights and weekends”, adding that most staff would not be affected.
One of the cornerstones of London Mayor Boris Johnson’s London Infrastructure 2050 plan is a new orbital railway.
“For the majority of those who are, [the] Night Tube will mean a few extra nights per year within their existing working week,” he was quoted as saying by City A.M.
“We have recruited 137 additional train drivers to allow all night operation and reduce the impact on our existing drivers. However, in the short term we will ask some train operators to do more. After a short transitional period, train operators will have the choice whether or not to work the Night Tube shifts.”
The monetary offer included a “transition bonus” of £2,000 for train operators, followed by another £500 for all workers on Night Tube lines. The RMT labelled it “divisive and unacceptable”, with plans announced for another strike on 5 August.
These issues have cast a long shadow over the Night Tube, and the situation worsened in late July when it was revealed that drivers refused to take out trains they claimed had not had the necessary safety checks. ASLEF then stated that seven Tube drivers had been sent home without pay.
It’s the economy, stupid
The hard, cold facts behind the reason for the Night Tube can be summed up in two words: economic benefits.
In a wide-ranging document produced for TfL last year, it is estimated that night services will “support” 1,965 jobs – 265 through direct operation of the service and 1,700 in the general night-time economy.
Baroness Jo Valentine, chief executive of London First, said: “Running the Tube through the night will help bring investment and jobs to the hospitality and entertainment sectors. The city will become more attractive to tourists.”
Other findings conclude that for each £1 spent on the running the Night Tube, the benefits will be £2.70, with additional fare revenue estimated at £291m as a present value over 30 years, which compares to capital and operating costs of £287m.
In terms of usage, TfL believes that nearly 180,000 trips will be made between 00:30am and 06:00am, half of which are expected to be new trips, i.e. those not transferring from night buses and other forms of transport.
However, despite these favourable figures, there is still some uncertainty regarding the start date, which at this late stage can only be viewed as a cause for concern.
London Mayor Boris Johnson has been steadfast in his support for the plan, but admitted in July that he was “not as hung up on the date” of 12 September, which is meant to coincide with the start of the Rugby World Cup, to be held in England from 18 September to 31 October.
Johnson added that the service would be ready to go “this autumn” – a rather vague pledge.
Coming as it does with concerns over strikes, the introduction of the Night Tube is currently navigating a bumpy road. However, it is an endeavour that has whetted the appetite of late-night revellers who are eager to ‘free the night’.
“Given the strong growth of all-night bus use in recent years, [I believe that] usage [of the Night Tube] is likely to grow, and opposition to reduce,” adds White.
TfL will be keeping its fingers crossed that such a prediction is accurate.