Route 660 - school bus
TfL’s new boss says scrapping free travel for secondary school children is not necessary

Free bus travel for London secondary school children will not be cut until next spring, the head of Transport for London has revealed.

The scheme was due to be suspended after the October half term, but TfL’s new commissioner Andy Byford said it would be pushed back to 2021.

The Government ordered Sadiq Khan to cut under-18s’ free travel during the coronavirus pandemic to help social distancing – making it a condition of the £1.6 billion TfL bailout in May.

But London mayor Sadiq Khan refused to back the policy, claiming it was forced on him late in negotiations, while campaigners warned it would hit poorer families already struggling during the Covid-19 outbreak.

Byford, who took charge of TfL in May, told the London Assembly on Thursday it “cannot now be done” in time for the half-term break. Cutting free travel is “still the government’s desire” and “remains on the table”, he said – but the TfL boss believes it is no longer necessary.

Bus tap-ins with Zip cards are already down 30 per cent on last year, the assembly’s budget scrutiny committee heard. TfL believes removing free travel would cut demand from children by only six per cent at most. Overall, bus use is at about 60 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, while Tube use remains at just a third.

Bus only allowing 20 people on board
Buses are running at a reduced capacity (though are now up to 30 people for double deckers)

“It’s always a challenge in September because you get a sudden rush of school kids coming in but we have taken steps to provide special school buses,” Mr Byford said.

“If ultimately the goal [of cutting free travel] was providing extra capacity then I think that what we’ve already done has been spectacularly successful.”

The deputy mayor for transport, Heidi Alexander, said ministers have “never been clear” about the reasons for scrapping under-18s’ passes.

“I think we need to get to a point where there’s a bit of honesty about why they really want this to happen,” she said.

“If the government are really intent on pursuing this I think not becomes clear that this is more about equalising concessionary fares across the country and raising revenue.”

Alexander said that ministers had said they wanted primary school children to be exempt from the new policy as well as children who live more than two miles from their school.

“It has been said to me that we can’t have a situation where children in London get one thing and children in Barnsley get something else,” she said. “It is my view that this is about, in essence, about levelling down to the lowest common denominator.” (Watch from 1:16:30.)

Alice Woudhuysen, London campaign manager for Child Poverty Action Group, welcomed the delay but said she was still “very concerned”.

The charity has been working with young Londoners to lobby against the planned suspension, and Ms Woudhuysen said the delay showed their efforts “have not gone unnoticed”.

It is not yet clear when in the new year the cut will come into force – and Ms Woudhuysen said families could be hit with an extra cost at a difficult time.

“The fact that the suspension is now coming after Christmas is really unfortunate,” she told the Local Democracy Reporting Service.

“It’s likely to be really bleak this year: families are struggling already and Christmas is an additional expense. Having to pay for transport after that in one of the coldest and most depressing months of the year will be hard.”

Additional reporting by Darryl Chamberlain

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Jessie Mathewson is the Local Democracy Reporter for the Greater London Authority. The Local Democracy Reporter Service is a BBC-funded initiative to ensure councils are covered properly in local media.
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