Last week Transport for London held out the prospect of the Underground running later at weekends. Commencing in 2015, this could deliver a boost to London's £8 billion a year dining, drinking and entertainment industry. It would provide a boon to the thousands of Londoners who flock to the West End for a night out.
This would not be the first time that timetables have been extended. In 1902, the Metropolitan Railway Company ran trains until 2.30 am to cater for King Edward VII's coronation celebrations. During his reign, late night "theatre specials" ran until 1am to whisk theatregoers back to the suburbs. For decades the tube has run "all nighters" on New Year's Eve.
In these latest plans, the big difference is that late night services would operate on a regular basis. That would be a breakthrough. For years, maintenance and industrial relations have made night running on the Underground problematic and expensive. Ken Livingstone tried to introduce it. Boris included it in his 2008 transport manifesto. But until recently not much has changed.
International observers may wonder what the fuss is about. Other world cities, including Chicago and New York run services twenty-four hours a day. Berlin operates all night at weekends. On the Paris Metro, services run well past 1am. London's last trains run from central London at 12.40 am. But our system does not benefit from the extra sets of tracks found on other metros. This allows them to run round the clock.
Why has it taken until now for more concrete plans to be floated? Perhaps crucially, the Olympics raised the public's expectations. During London 2012 the tube ran a whole hour later every night of the week. It operated earlier on Sundays and clocked up many hours of reliable service. London's city government and transport system demonstrated that improvements can be delivered. Commentators asked, if later tubes and smoother traffic were possible for athletes and spectators, why not every day for Londoners?
Part of the answer also lies in the huge levels of investment that are starting to pay off. Catching up on years of under-funding, new track and electronic signalling systems should be generating efficiencies. If fewer hours are required for inspections and repairs, there is more time for trains to run. In addition, Tube drivers and other staff may well be privately enthusiastic. Finally, there could be fare box benefits too.
Between them, London's two Mayors have delivered significant improvements to the transport system. Smart ticketing, congestion charging, and the Boris bus and bike hire schemes have proven popular with voters. For years, extending hours on the tubewas thought to be too difficult. Londoners and their city representatives are choosing to disagree. There should be a continued push to tackle long standing obstacles to how London moves. Taming buses in Oxford Street, building new river crossings to the east and running the Tube and buses on Christmas day all come to mind.
London faces fierce rivalry for investment and talent from other world cities. Later running on the tube at weekends is the sort of quality of life factor that will help to keep the city competitive. Thanks to the Olympics it may be a Games legacy that Londoners finally get to keep.Suggest a correction