London public transport on the verge of bankruptcy. Spain seeks not to follow the same path

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With permission from the red phone booths, the Big Benthe ferris wheel, westminster and a handful of other monuments, perhaps the great hallmark of London —replicated a thousand times in selfies and postcards— are its buses, black taxis and a subway that has managed to turn its logo into almost a universal pop icon. Not even that weight, however, has saved them from COVID-19. City transport is infected. And with a fever, too. Guardian has unveiled what Transport for London (TfL), the authority that manages the service, is at the limit. His situation is so complicated that he has launched an SOS to the administrations: could face bankruptcy soon.

And the pandemic is very much to blame.

Beyond the severe “hammer blow” that the metro and the rest of the sector suffered during the worst of the pandemic, when confinements and capacity restrictions were applied, the reality is that today their demand levels continue without recovering and they remain well below those reached before the pandemic. The level of subway passengers there is 59% and the use of the bus is approximately 75%. To deal with the situation, the government has had to come to the rescue with financing agreements; but the last one, to date, has expired.

Without a new oxygen balloon from the administrations, TfL’s future would be complicated by failing to meet the legal requirement to ensure that it can balance its budget.

beyond the city

The question is: Is this just a City problem? Although part of the problem with TfL is likely to be its tremendous structure and the cost of maintaining it – the metro alone exceeds 400 kilometers and 270 stops—, London is not the only metropolis that is having a hard time recovering “pre-COVID-19” demand levels. The problem, in reality, is not only about urban mobility, but about the slowness with which passengers are returning to public transport in a scenario that is still very marked by factors such as the fear of contagion or teleworking.

You don’t have to go far to find out. It comes with dipping into the official statistics of our own country. The latest data from Aena, for example, show that in January the airports of Spain moved 10.4 million passengers. They are many more than a year ago, but they are still 37% less than in 2019last year free of the “COVID-19 effect”.

Regarding urban transport, INE data is also clear. Throughout last year, Madrid added 296.7 million passengers in the regular bus service and 442.3 by metro. The data improves again to that of the previous year, but does not quite reach that of 2019, when the institute recorded, respectively, 440.1 and 677.5. The difference was still marked in December, the latest data published by the INE. In Barcelona there is a similar situation. In Barcelona, ​​regular urban transport by bus and metro added around 273.7 million users during the second half of the year, compared to the 362.6 recorded during the same period in 2019.

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The situation is more or less similar in Seville, Valencia or Bilbaofor example, that they closed the second half of 2021 with values ​​that do not reach those they managed before the health crisis. As for the railway, the third quarter of last year —the most recent data released by the INE— closed with 99.9 million travelers, far from the 139.3 two years earlier. Part of that figure is explained by the slowness with which the routes and frequencies have been replenished. In August, for example, Extremadura had not yet recovered 30% of the trains abolished in 2020.

Beyond the statistics and just as it happens to TfL in London, the “punctures” in demand are felt in the income statements. A year ago Madrid Metro unveiled that in 2020 he had won 10 million euros, 84% less than the previous year. To encourage demand, in fact, the regional government came to activate a campaign that, under the slogan ‘Let’s go back to moving on public transport’, tried to get users to return to buses, wagons and taxis. Even then, when it was calculated that 2020 would close with a “prick” of 47% compared to 2019, the Executive itself recognized that did not expect a full recovery until 2023.

In Catalonia, where Barcelona Metropolitan Transport (TMB) said goodbye to 2020 with a negative impact of 245 million euros, due to the collapse of passengers and the increase in expenses for disinfection – a severe blow that was mitigated by resorting to state aid and internal savings – normality also resists reaching one hundred percent public service. In December 2021 the demand for the metropolitan bus was still around 85% on business days.

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In any case, and as is happening in London, the shadow of the pandemic it has not been free to the administrations. The Town Hall of Vigo had to compensate with more than two million euros to the concessionaire of its urban bus for the losses it suffered during the worst of the crisis, between March and June two years ago. The company’s claim pointed to the end of 2021 at a much higher sum. The municipalities of other localities —Salamanca or Xativato cite two more cases—in addition to regional administrations, such as the Junta de Castilla y Leónthey have also had to face disbursements to compensate operators that, as a public service, continued to circulate during the crisis with reduced capacity and less demand.

Thousands of people traveled around the world on cargo ships.  Until the pandemic came

For the group, the hangover from COVID-19 also coincides with a particularly delicate moment, marked by the rise in the cost of energy. Just a few weeks ago, the Association of Urban and Metropolitan Public Transport (ATUC), sent a letter to the government for warn of the double challenge facing the sector: the legacy of the pandemic —”the sector is still affected”, the entity warns— and the escalation in electricity prices, which affects subways, trains and trams.

The objective: that COVID does not leave a dent in the public transport system.

And, by the way, that we can continue enjoying the metro and buses of the City.

Images | Viktor Forgacs (Unplash), Humphrey Muleba (Unplash) and Nikita Kachanovsky (Unplash)

With permission from the red phone booths, the Big Benthe ferris wheel, westminster and a handful of other monuments, perhaps…

With permission from the red phone booths, the Big Benthe ferris wheel, westminster and a handful of other monuments, perhaps…

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