The claim

“Fares might be soaring, but the service is plummeting! Delays and line closures have become a daily part of Londoners’ lives.”
Sack Boris” election leaflet, 30 January 2012

The background

Ken Livingstone is putting transport at the heart of his campaign to unseat Boris Johnson and regain the London mayoralty.

We had already FactChecked the Labour candidate’s promise to slash fares for public transport in the capital (read more here).

Then, at a London Underground station this morning, a Ken supporter thrust some eye-catching election material in the shape of an Oyster card and wallet into our hands.

Actually, we didn’t know she was a Ken supporter at first, as the leaflet doesn’t make any mention of Mr Livingstone. It simply urges Londoners to “Sack Boris”, citing his record on fare rises, budgeting for big projects and service performance.The trade union who is printing and distributing the pamphlet, the Transport and Salaried Staffs’ Association, told us they are in fact backing the Labour candidate financially and are urging their London members to vote for him in the upcoming election.

The clear implication of the mock-Oyster card (see the claim above) is that delays and line closures on the Tube have got worse under Boris Johnson’s stewardship of Transport for London. We wondered if this was true.

The analysis

Transport for London (TfL) publishes more information on London Underground’s performance than any non-FactChecker could reasonably want to read in a lifetime. (Look under performance data almanac here, if you dare.)

Of the many measures of performance recorded by the transport authority’s number crunchers, we chose four that we thought would best test the union’s claims about delays and closures.

These were: the number of stations closed for more than 15 minutes; the number of journeys delayed for more than 15 minutes; excess journey time in minutes and lost customer hours.

For excess journey time – ie how much longer journeys took than they were supposed to take – we used figures that excluded industrial action.

This is because there are often severe spikes in delays when strikes are on, for obvious reasons, and those can skew the stats.

We wanted to avoid a political argument about whether the unions or the employers were ultimately “responsible” for various walkouts that have affected the Tube over the years, so we took strikes out of the equation.

FactCheck looked at every four-week period (we can’t say “month” because TfL, like ancient pagans, divides the year into 13 lots of four weeks) where each Mayor was in office for the full period – in other words, we discounted the times when mayoral elections fell in the middle of a period.

We simply totted up all the figures for every Tube line in every four-week spell under Boris’s term so far and under Ken’s second term, then took the average for both.

Here’s what we found:

So there was a negligible difference on stations, but Boris was slightly ahead. Performance was significantly better during an average four-week period under Boris in terms of the number of delayed journeys and excess journey time.

The most dramatic difference was in lost passenger hours – a million a month more, on average, under Ken than under Boris.

Of course there are limitations to this kind of analysis. There are other performance measures we haven’t looked at.

These averages also don’t tell us what has happened over time. They don’t show whether performance is on the up now, or whether Boris inherited a trend of improvement from Ken.

And it’s also fair to say that a programme of infrastructural improvements and repairs to the Underground – which may be much needed – would inevitably produce delays and closures. So each Mayor’s record on maintenance and infrastructure would have to be considered alongside these kind of figures.

Due to pressure of time, we also haven’t considered how changes in the numbers of service users have affected pressure on the Underground network over time.

The verdict

The figures speak for themselves, and the difference in passenger hours lost – an average of a million a month more under Ken – is particularly striking.

This isn’t the final word on Ken versus Boris, but if Boris Johnson’s opponents want to put his stewardship of public transport at the heart of this election battle, they will have to make a convincing case, at least as far as the Underground is concerned.

There is no doubt that fares have gone up under the Conservative mayor, but there is little evidence that delays and closures have gone up too.

By Patrick Worrall

Related story: Can Ken Livingstone deliver a ‘fare deal’ for London?

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[Update: The TSSA told FactCheck: “Sack Boris is a campaign that was launched by the campaign group Common People to let Londoners show their frustration with the failings of Boris Johnson as Mayor of London.

“TSSA recently agreed to work with Common People in support of their campaign as part of our strategy to work with community organisations and campaign groups across the UK for better public transport provision.

“As a trade union affiliated to the Labour Party we have agreed to support Ken’s election campaign. However, this is not linked to our work with Common People, who we regard as an independent non-partisan group.

“London Travel Watch last week reported that following the reduction in staffed ticket offices across the underground last year the promise of a visible uniformed staff presence at gatelines has in many casesfailed to materialise. That seems to TSSA to be strong evidence that the service is plummeting under Boris.”]