When the buck stops nowhere

It would be easy to dismiss Saturday’s accident at Chancery Lane as just a random mishap on an overstretched system which historically has a superb safety record. But that would be a mistake.

The very fact that the past record of the system is so good and that this incident has occurred during a period of great upheaval and controversy on the system, must create doubts about whether it is just an unfortunate coincidence.

The timing of the crash, which could easily have been so much worse, must raise concerns about the way the underground has been managed over the past few years and suggests that the controversy over the Public Private Partnership may have had an effect on safety, even if only by distracting management attention away from their basic day job of ensuring that risks to passengers on the Tube are kept to a minimum.

In many ways, the accident at Chancery Lane demonstrates just what an amazing safety record the Underground has. There have only been two major disasters in its 140 year history and only one of those, at Moorgate, when a driver unaccountably smashed his train into a wall in 1975, involved the train service. The other, at King’s Cross, was the 1987 fire when 31 people died.

That is a remarkable achievement given the complexity of the system, its overuse and its underinvestment, but it is also a further pointer to the fact that the timing of Saturday’s accident was not a coincidence.

It is now certain that the accident was caused by a motor dropping off, wedging underneath and causing the train to derail. Surprising as it may seem, this is by no means an unprecedented event. In September last year, an empty Central Line train was derailed in similar circumstances at Loughton on the same line.

According to a union source, “the correspondence arising from that incident refers to other previous incidents”. Moreover, there was a more serious event in the early 1980s on the District Line at St James’s Park when a motor dropped off, causing extensive damage to a then relatively new train.

Clearly, too, there was concern about this type of incident occurring again on the Central Line. It has emerged that five trains out of 80 were being given special checks every day to ensure that bolts were not working loose. However, this raises the question of why the underlying problem was not being tackled, rather than institutionalising checks on what appeared to be a design fault.

And here, according to inside sources within the Under-ground, is where recent upheavals have played a role. Five years a go the Gove r nment announced the Public-Private Partnership, which would part-privatise the Tube. The management of London Underground has been reorganised to prepare for it, an arrangement called “shadow running”. The result is that morale is at an all-time low. One Underground manager wrote to me recently: “I have met no LUL manager below director level who thinks PPP is a good idea – bar one who was so ingratiating about how wonderful a thing he thought the PPP was, I nearly had to use a sick-bag.”

Moreover, the PPP system has created a host of complexities-about responsibilities-Even though the system is only shadow running on the Central Line as the eventual contractors, Metronet, have had trouble raising the money for the deal, it has still created a culture that is different from the traditional railway practices of the Underground.

The engineers who maintain the trains now work for the BCV Infraco (Bakerloo, Central, Victoria infrastructure company, now under London Underground) which will eventually transfer to Metronet, and the drivers are employed by London Underground, which will go to Transport for London. (Although both are still under London Underground control, the Infraco will notionally pay penalties to the operator if it causes delays.)

It is a division which has been widely criticised and undoubtedly contributed to the safety problems on the national railway resulting, in particular in the Hatfield train crash and quite possibly the more recent one at Potters Bar.

Splitting up the railway in this way has been done for financial reasons to allow for privatisation, but does not make any sense in terms of railway operations. It breaks the contact between the two sides and, in this case, resulted in operations staff having to make decisions about engineering work for which they were unqualified. The subsequent spat over who, precisely, has responsibility for taking out of service a train about which there are safety concerns, is a vivid illustration of how the lines of accountability have been fudged.

This has also been made more complicated by a change in the culture of the Underground, as more and more staff have been recruited who do not have experience of traditional railway practices. Although London Transport is right to say that the driver has the ultimate say over whether the train can be used in service or not, in recent years controllers have increasingly put pressure on drivers.

According to one middle manager: “if the driver is experienced and knows what he is doing, then he will insist on taking trains out. However, in recent years, they have employed more and more people off the street, rather than people with a railway background, and these people think the controller is God and will obey them.”

The universal message from within the Underground is that the uncertainty created by the PPP and the subsequent controversy has resulted in a morale-sapping atmosphere which has resulted in a deterioration of the service and lack of accountability.

The extraordinary aspect of this incident has been the complete silence of the government and its ministers. It is their PPP scheme which is being pushed through and which may have contributed to the underlying cause of the accident. Indeed, the Underground is under the direct control of the Department for Transport until it is handed over to the mayor when the PPP deals are eventually finalised. But so far Alistair Darling and his junior ministers have been conspicuous by their absence, aware that they cannot defend the indefensible.

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