OPINION - Fares freeze or fast-tracking of Central line repairs? Sadiq Khan may have made poor choice

Sadiq Khan views a refurbished Central line train - which includes CCTV cameras for the first time - at Hainault depot last December (Ross Lydall)
Sadiq Khan views a refurbished Central line train - which includes CCTV cameras for the first time - at Hainault depot last December (Ross Lydall)

Politics is all about choices, and Sadiq Khan may have made a very poor one.

Will it lose him the forthcoming mayoral election? Probably not. Perversely, it will probably win him votes. But it could lead to big problems coming down the track.

The key issue at stake is the present – and future - state of the London Underground.

Since November, the Central line has been – I’ll be as polite as possible, here – banjaxed on a daily basis. Its trains are more than 30 years old and their motors are failing.

Each train has 32 electric motors. It only takes one motor to break for the train to have to be taken out of service. The Central line needs 71 trains for its peak-hour service. Last week it had only 54.

What does this mean? Chaos, delays, overcrowding and passenger anger – with station staff unjustly in the firing line.

What is TfL doing? It has upped the hours of its maintenance teams and is repairing the motors as quickly as it can. (I’ve been to a depot – hats off to these engineers.)

Separately, and underway before the current “shortage of available trains”, it is also taking five trains out of service at a time for a full refurb - a £500m programme that will take until 2029 to complete.

What else is it doing? Trying to score political points. Guess what, it’s the Government’s fault for not providing sufficient funding. This refrain emanates from City Hall more frequently than a Central line train from a depot these days.

TfL commissioner Andy Lord warned last week that other Tube lines – the Bakerloo, Northern and Piccadilly, most likely – are next at risk of having their trains fail.

He blames years of missed engineering overhauls when TfL was fighting for survival during the pandemic.

Fair enough, but what about now?

TfL is due to post its first-ever operating surplus (£144m) while Mr Khan (who is chair of TfL) has just allocated £177m (of a £500m pre-election windfall) to freeze TfL fares, pay striking Tube staff more and scrap peak Tube and train fares on Fridays for a few months.

That’s more than £320m. Even with millions more expected in fares income, it’s not enough to buy a new fleet of trains (£1.6bn is the going rate for the Piccadilly line). But couldn’t it at least pay for new rather than reconditioned motors for the Central line?

George Osborne used to talk about “fixing the roof when the sun shines” while in charge of the nation’s finances.

Mr Khan has chosen short-term political posturing over long-term investment. 10p off fares for a train that never comes? Doesn’t sound a great choice to me.