London’s Travelcard liberated transport users. It’s withdrawal joins ticket office closures as a big backward step by today’s politicians
This beautiful, freedom-loving ticket product must be saved
There are four things in life I’ve always found tedious and shown no interest in. The first are curtain and blinds shops, followed by horse racing and board games. Then, it’s politics. The last time I voted was in 1997, for John Major. I did so because my Mum told me I couldn’t complain if I didn’t vote and he came across as a nice, affable, normal, middle-aged bloke, like my Dad and crucially he was a fellow Surrey County Cricket Club fanatic.
There are few politicians to have ever resonated with me or stuck in my mind as doing something that has been remotely impressive. The one exception is Ken Livingstone – not because I was particularly enamoured with him, but he is one politician that actually did something that made me think ‘that was a great initiative’. As the leader of the Greater London Council (GLC), Ken launched a ‘Fairs Fare’ policy in 1981 which slashed the cost of tickets across London by 25% and led to the creation of the London Travelcard in 1984, a simple cardboard ticket that granted freedom to travel anywhere in and around London. A year later Ken launched the London Capitalcard, which was a season ticket equivalent of the One Day Travelcard.
It was a Labour mayor – ‘Red Ken’ who presided over the birth of this game-changing ticket and it’s a mayor of the same political persuasion who is now extinguishing all life out of it in early 2024, under the auspices of cost-cutting, but more likely spite in his ongoing battle with the Tory government around the funding of Transport for London.
It’s easy for younger readers, who have grown up in the world of so-called smart ticketing, Oyster, contactless and wretched Apps not to care for the demise of the Travelcard or appreciate its place in the history of London’s transport. Around the time it was created, public transport in the capital was on its knees. The late 1970s with all its discontent and strikes ran parallel to a general slumber across London Underground and British Rail – an inertia that had bred poor standards of service and slovenly safety, that continued sluggishly into the recession and riot-dominated early 1980s, made worse by the conflict in Northern Ireland which not infrequently led to terrorist threats and outrages on London’s network, decreasing demand for travel. Violence on the picket lines, rampant inflation, the cold war and football hooliganism, this was an era like nothing else and the mood was so doldrum-like across the UK population that it clearly had an impact on discretionary spend and also the inclination of folk to venture out. It was a six-day economy too with Sundays a write-off, dull as dishwater, everywhere was closed and there was nothing to do.
The Travelcard was a simple and common-sense product, unheard of before in the UK or overseas. For around a couple of quid you could travel across London and its environs, on buses, trains and the Tube
The Travelcard was a simple and common-sense product, unheard of before in the UK or overseas. For around a couple of quid you could travel across London and its environs, on buses, trains and the Tube. Its USP wasn’t just its great value but also the simplicity – of not having to faff around paying lots of times or working out the cheapest fare. In turn it relieved queues at busy London Underground ticket offices because folk from British Rail routes could just saunter through with their Travelcard.
My Dad recently admitted that in our household of five in Orpington, the Travelcard stimulated journeys that we wouldn’t have otherwise made as a family and also increased our frequency of travel. This was because it was both affordable and convenient to use, particularly for someone such as him who used to get stressed over-planning trips out for us all. It created the kind of spontaneity of travel that was at odds with his penchant for routine and complex plans. I recall around the time of its birth, a sudden gush of trips we made across all parts of suburbia, across London, to watch our local non-league football team, Bromley, whereas previously we might have got on the supporters’ coach or not travelled. And then, as I became independent, the Travelcard was the gateway to me spending day after day in school holidays trainspotting and travelling on buses, without my parents worrying about me running out of cash.
Around this time, public transport was enjoying a sudden renaissance, with the Travelcard playing its part. Chris Green created Network South East and sectorisation was in its prime, driving a mix of local and regional entrepreneurialism unseen on the railway since pre-nationalisation. The Network Card was born not long before new developments, such as the Docklands Light Railway in 1987 and the cross-London Thameslink service a year later. Frequencies were also being increased after the barren years of the early 1980s. The City economy was booming under Thatcher – the advent of ‘yuppies’ occurred alongside a growth in overseas tourism to London – the Travelcard making it easy for them to use our network.
The Travelcard, like most successful products enjoyed longevity because it wasn’t, until its latter years, tampered with unnecessarily. Although, there were ‘add-on’ zones for far flung places such as the extremities of the Metropolitan line.The boundary zones remained consistent and the shape and design of the London Connections map, which showcased the product and journey opportunities, has also remained almost entirely unchanged – even newly constructed lines and modes have been tastefully added without altering the style and shape of this work of beauty. However, there was never a sense of complacency, the product, until recent times, was consistently marketed.
TfL claims that the Travelcard costs it £40m. It’s pretty well impossible for anyone to genuinely determine how such a calculation was made.
Sadly, in the past 15 years, Transport for London seemed content to let the product wither with marketing drying up. Before 2011, they used to offer a full range of zone-to-zone versions but scrapped 50% of these! Despite this, in 2018, the Travelcard enjoyed record popularity, with sales of 27 million, which makes it even more ridiculous that barely six short years later it’s on death row. The pandemic has been blamed for its demise, 12 million sold last year, which is still a big number, particularly in the post-pandemic era. With leisure travel offering the greatest glimmer of hope for the future, only the negligent and incompetent would scrap a product with a track record of success in penetrating this market, particularly at a time when we should be giving folk reasons to travel and making it easy for them to do so. TfL claims that the Travelcard costs it £40m. It’s pretty well impossible for anyone to genuinely determine how such a calculation was made.
TfL and the DfT laud the fact that contactless, ‘tap in, tap out’ means that a Travelcard is now irrelevant to folk. This is ludicrous because vast swathes of stations between zones 4-6 aren’t part of the contactless area. And even if they are, then you cannot use a Railcard with them, whereas you can enjoy a discount currently with a Travelcard. How long before the authorities suck all value out of Railcards such that they can conveniently be euthanised? They tried that one when a minimum fare was introduced on the Network Card a few years ago.
Choose any station outside of Zone 6 and the increase in fares could be up to 62%, as is the case, for instance, if you are used to travelling from Maidenhead to Tottenham Court Road. There are some Railcards which can be added to Oyster Cards (those cards that have long since been in decline), but you cannot add them to a Two Together, Network or Family & Friends Card and none can be used with contactless debit or credit cards. A Zones 1-6 One Day Travelcard currently costs £15.20 and only £10.64 with a Railcard!
The wilful demise of the Travelcard is in keeping with a rancid atmosphere in transport right now, at odds with the conviction and positivity that greeted this great product’s birth in 1984 as part of the other good initiatives in play at the time
The wilful demise of the Travelcard is in keeping with a rancid atmosphere in transport right now, at odds with the conviction and positivity that greeted this great product’s birth in 1984 as part of the other good initiatives in play at the time. The Travelcard consultation process appears to have been deliberately buried below the higher profile and hugely contentious ticket office consultation – an experience that someone in Transport Focus last month described as “living hell”. Indeed, the day after my article last time round about this subject went to press, I was approached on a late evening train from Leeds to Manchester by a blind chap with a guide dog, walking through the carriages handing out leaflets and pleading people to petition against the absurd proposals. He sat down next to me and said: “If this goes through, you will not believe the impact it will have on my life. I will really struggle to go out anymore and travel, I am so scared and upset.”
As we all know, the ticket office closure threats aren’t the only grim PR issues affecting perceptions right now. The continued cutbacks to HS2 which now make this whole scheme so miniscule in terms of benefits that you’d laugh if it wasn’t so utterly tragic, alongside the no end in sight rail strikes and continued cuts to bus routes create a backdrop like never seen before. Even someone so politically agnostic and uninterested as I, cannot fail not to pick up on the disquiet felt at senior levels and throughout management and beyond in transport towards the government for its disregard for public transport.
A few vox pop surveys among family and friends in and around London, revealed that there will be even less inclination and spontaneity to travel when One Day Travelcards are scrapped
A few vox pop surveys among family and friends in and around London, revealed that there will be even less inclination and spontaneity to travel when One Day Travelcards are scrapped. The Railcard issue is a factor, but so too the need to buy multiple tickets or, depending on where you live, keep tapping in and out. Contactless may feel convenient but there are still too many folk who accidentally mis-tap, particularly when changing modes or at interchanges, and there are others who also don’t feel comfortable not knowing how much they are actually paying, it just doesn’t feel transparent, and they can’t be bothered to check bank statements. There are also many clowns like me who accidentally tap in with one card and then erroneously forget which one I’ve used and tap out with another, therefore getting an additional charge. I despair when I hear the authorities and suppliers waffle on about their initiatives to make fares and ticketing easier to understand and purchase – all this talk about geo-fencing enabling fares capping and multi-modal tickets – you hear of trials and are told to get excited about the future, but I’ve been hearing this chuntering for so long now, it sounds like the kind of political promises that turned me to apathy.
So, there you go, I’m feeling animated, bordering on enraged – maybe politics now moves off my list of subjects that bore me, replaced by listening to people talk about their make of car. Ticket office closures and the murder of the Travelcard is on the watch of today’s politicians. Ken Livingstone’s legacy was the inception of this beautiful, freedom-loving ticket product that resuscitated transport in London and Sadiq Khan’s will have been to extinguish it. Even a political agnostic must realise what a dreadful legacy our current mayor will be leaving. You would have thought that to mark the 40-year anniversary of such an iconic product, there would be a big celebration and an opportunity to reinject life into it and remind folk of its worth. But, no, instead of a celebration we’ll be having a wake. Shove that on your CV Sadiq. I hope you feel proud.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Alex Warner has over 30 years’ experience in the transport sector, having held senior roles on a multi-modal basis across the sector. He is co-founder of recruitment business Lost Group and transport consultancy AJW Experience Group (which includes Great Scenic Journeys). He is also chair of West Midlands Grand Rail Collaboration and chair of Surrey FA.
This story appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.
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