Rail 456: History repeats itself on Tube and the politicians don’t care

The damage inflicted by privatisation on the surface railway is being replicated on the London Underground whose Managing Director, Paul Godier, has just resigned, warns CHRISTIAN WOLMAR – who also wonders why a highly-paid SRA functionary staged in a bizarre attempt to discredit him.

When the national railway network virtually collapsed after Railtrack imposed unnecessary 20mph speed restrictions across the network in the aftermath of the Hatfield crash in October 2000, Alastair Morton, then the head of the Strategic Rail Authority, said they had suffered a collective ‘nervous breakdown’. Given recent events on the Central and Waterloo & City lines, the same thing appears to have happened with London Underground, as witnessed by the sudden departure of Managing Director Paul Godier.

The process of decline has frightening similarities with what happened on the railways. A once-proud organisation has been broken up in the name of progress, and, demoralised by the process of change, the service offered to the public has deteriorated and the safety risks have increased.

I do not mention safety lightly. When I wrote my book Down the Tube, I suggested that Mayor Ken Livingstone’s constant references to ‘bodies on the track’ following the implementation of the Public Private Partnership were exaggerated and irresponsible. While Livingstone’s remarks were over the top, it is clear that just as new risks were introduced when the railway was broken up and privatised, the same applies to the Underground.

The accident on the Central Line at Chancery Lane on January 25 and, particularly, its aftermath even have some of the same hallmarks as the events following Hatfield. The cause was a preventable incident about which, just as at Hatfield, there had been earlier concerns. At Chancery Lane, a traction motor fell off and wedged under the train, causing it to derail and smash into the wall. It was the most serious train incident on the Underground since the Moorgate disaster more than a quarter of a century ago.

Traction motors had come off Central Line stock before, notably from an empty train at Loughton a few months previously, and there had been similar problems on District Line stock in the late 1980s. The unions say there have been several other incidents on the Central Line recently but London Underground claims there is no record of this. Instead of trying to find the root cause of the problem – such as vibration or a design fault – LUL stepped up inspections but clearly not sufficiently.

Serious as the incident was, LUL management overreacted. Rather than instituting a better regime of checking, together with, perhaps, some immediate patch repairs, the line is closed down by the management, pushing many of its 650,000 daily users on to the already congested and much more dangerous roads. This demonstrates the extent to which London Underground managers have lost confidence in their ability to run the system and no longer have the required skills to do so. One inside source explained: “They’ve got rid of so many engineers that the whole system is now run by clever young things straight out of university. There are very few people with practical experience.”

This was well demonstrated by what happened when the Waterloo & City Line, which uses the same rolling stock, was restored. Within a day, loose bolts were found because they had not been tightened properly, causing yet more bad publicity about the safety of the system. Sure, they said they were ‘furious’ about the failure, but how come it was ever allowed to happen on such a high-profile operation?

There are plenty of other signs of deep malaise. Another manager pointed out that Derek Smith, who recently ran the Underground, had absolutely no knowledge of the industry having come from the NHS, to where he has returned. The same thing happened with Railtrack which employed a series of railway rookies such as Bob Horton, Gerald Corbett and the hapless Jonson Cox. Smith, said the source, “came with little experience, very little understanding of the organisation – and left with little more,” making a series of gaffes during his tenure, including the suggestion to reduce weekend trains in order to boost peak services.

Another source of concern is the widely – reported conversation between the drivers and the controllers just before the accident, which sounded like the sort of chat you might hear in the works canteen rather than a discussion that had safety-critical implications.

Having already suffered from the inexperience of managers such as Smith and the inevitable attention of consultants, the Underground has been thrown into complete disarray by the five-year wrangle over the Public Private Partnership. Not only has this resulted in the separation of operations from maintenance, one of the root causes of the problems on the national rail network, but it has created a mountain of paperwork and bureaucracy. Partly, of course, this is a response to the Health & Safety Executive, which has repeatedly expressed concern about the PPP and therefore has instituted a whole host of backside-covering bureaucratic procedures. “I don’t read half of it because if I did, I would never get anything else done and, in any case, much of it I don’t understand when I do,” said one manager.

There are several clear signs of the organisation’s collapse. Financially, despite booming numbers of users, the Underground lost £133m in 2001/02 compared with a profit of more than double that four years ago. About a third of this £400m reversal was due to a change in accounting procedures (offset, though, by increasing revenue) but the rest is a result of a massive rise in costs. A big part of this is due to generous settlements with the unions by the demobhappy management, most of whom will lose their jobs when Livingstone finally takes responsibility for the organisation later this year.

Other losses are the result of the failure to manage. Contractors are frequently called in for jobs which then cannot be done because simple procedures required to permit them to get on the track, such as issuing the right codes, have not been followed. As the BBC TV documentary Kenyon Confronts showed, there is a culture of waste. And when some of the new breed of manager do intervene, there is a ‘sod the customer’ attitude. Another insider reports that a track access manager said it did not matter if a particular possession overran because no penalty under the PPP arrangement would be incurred. The fact that thousands of people would be delayed on their journey to work was not taken into account. This playing to the incentives and to the rules is, of course, deeply familiar to anyone who has had to deal with Railtrack.

Now all this is serious and has led to a deterioration in service, but the real worry is the consistent and long-term rise in the number of signals passed at danger. Last year there were more than 700 SPADs compared with fewer than 300 ten years ago.

LUL says this is partly due to better reporting but also accepts that another cause is the high proportion of drivers hired from outside the industry with no knowledge of railway operations. All Tube trains are fitted with tripcocks which cut the current when there is a SPAD. Moreover, the equipment is checked on every journey as there is a point on each line where it is activated. Indeed, the safety case now requires that trains cannot be run without a tripcock check. However, accidents always occur when two things go wrong and it is not inconceivable that, with two SPADs every day, the failsafe system will not work. Most obviously, there could be a tripcock failure en route followed by a SPAD.

Several drivers have had multiple SPADs and London Underground has agreed very generous terms with the unions for enforced transfers to less well-paid jobs – drivers are now on around £30,000 a year – ensuring there is no loss of pay for the first two years. There is concern among long-established managers that a culture has been allowed to develop in which the seriousness of ‘SPAD-ing’ has not been realised by the train operators, who know that there is an automatic train protection system.

All this suggests that the sooner that Transport for London takes over the management of the Underground, the better. But a big cultural revolution is required and that may not be possible without a complete overhaul of the PPP. The saddest aspect of this tale is that the Underground is apparently being rent apart by the same forces that destroyed the railways – and the politicians are ignoring the lessons.

Wolmarballs

Something bizarre is going on at the Strategic Rail Authority. The resident spin doctor, Ceri Evans, has taken to sending out press releases on official headed SRA paper under the heading, ‘Wolmarballs, an occasional series’ to various journalists. The first one quotes extracts from a couple of RAIL columns which Evans clearly thinks contradict each other. In the first, from December, I praised Bowker for having turned round the SRA and in the second, from February, I take issue with his decision not to go to the wall over the cut of 12% in the SRA’s budget for 2003/04.

Now, the greatest form of recognition for journalists is to know that their sabres have drawn blood. Indeed, I have heard from inside that other senior staff were so concerned that they initially refused to accept the cuts which Bowker was trying to impose. Therefore, the Wolmarballs press release is proudly displayed on my office noticeboard.

But there is, actually, a more serious point to be made here. Evans the Spin will no doubt claim that it was all a jolly jape and a bit of a giggle (although not one he shared with me). But, in fact, what is a press officer for a Government agency doing wasting his time – worth a cool £40 per hour on his £85,000 wages – and increasing his employers’ phone bill in an attempt to discredit a particular journalist? His efforts were spectacularly unfunny and wide of the mark since the views expressed in the columns were not even incompatible.

By and large the railway has always been remarkably free of spin doctors and, having seen what the SRA’s Alastair Campbell wannabe can do, let’s hope it continues. Evans has even taken to sending out circulars to rail industry representatives saying that unless certain guidelines, on the issue of Mk 1 replacement were kept to, it would be ‘off message’ and the wrong ‘line to take’. Clearly, he thinks he is working for a political party rather than a diffused industry of private sector organisations.

Indeed my treatment has been relatively mild compared with others on the receiving end – including passenger representatives, PRs and even a senior rail journalist – who have been in receipt of an earful over the telephone from the Welsh wizard. I just wonder what his boss, Richard Bowker, thought about the Wolmarballs press release when he saw it, which was presumably long after it had been faxed out?

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