Will the tube get back on track?

The lengthy closure of London Underground’s Central Line is a serious breakdown of a major public service which raises a number of issues that extend far beyond the transport field. The impact of the failure is demonstrated by the fact that the Central Line is used by 670,000 people every day, accounting for a staggering 10 per cent of all passenger journeys in the UK.

The closure was the result of an accident on 25th January at Chancery Lane station when a motor fell off underneath a train and derailed several coaches. Fortunately the crash, which was the result of the breaking of the bolts holding the motor, caused only minor injuries, the most serious being a broken leg, but the impact on London’s transport system and, indeed, on its economy has been very damaging. Transport for London has had to run a huge network of emergency buses, with, for example, people being carried out of East London to Harlow where they have had to catch trains to Liverpool Street and many people have found their journey to work taking twice as long as usual. In terms of the economy, John Lewis, not a listed company and therefore able to be more open than its rivals, has said that trade at its Oxford Street flagship store has been down by up to 15 per cent during the closure and other stores have suffered similar loss of business.

Yet, despite such a widespread impact on London’s economy, London Underground has demonstrated a lack of sense of urgency about bringing the service back. It took nearly two months before any trains came back into service and the Central’s closure has become the longest ever shutdown of a rail line for safety reasons in British railway history. LU hopes to have a service to all destinations by Easter and a full service soon after that.

The 68 day closure of the whole line after what, in engineering terms, was a relatively minor incident seems on the face of it inexplicable. The immediate decision, on the evening of the accident, to withdraw all the trains was prompted by the fact that this was the third such incident to a Central line train within the previous 18 months. Both the previous occasions involved empty trains and therefore received much less publicity. After the first, at Hainault, three monthly inspections of the bolts holding the motors were instituted and after the second, at Loughton, this was stepped up to every five days. Because the train involved in the accident had been inspected only two days previously, LU decided that it would be unsafe to allow any of this type of train – which is used only for the Central and Waterloo & City lines – to remain in service.

However, once the decision to close the line was taken, it meant the service would be suspended for weeks because the Health and Safety Executive then requires a safety case to prove that the trains are safe, something which is very hard to do and which has contributed to the delay. As David Crawley, the man responsible for maintenance on the line, explained to the House of Commons Transport Committee on 1 April, ‘it was like having to recommission a whole new line’. Everything – signals, track and trains – had to be checked and this added to the delay in restarting services.

Paul Godier, the managing director of London Underground argued that LU faced no alternative to shutting the line just as fleets of aircraft were grounded in the event of a disaster involving engines falling off. In fact, that is wrong. There were a spate of accidents caused by engines falling off 747s in the 1990s but the whole fleet was not grounded. Instead, the level of checks was stepped up.

Indeed, the phenomenon of motors falling off Tube trains is not new. In the early 1990s, the same thing happened to a District Line train, ironically at St James’s Park station, the site of the Underground HQ. Then, although some trains were withdrawn, a service was maintained and the required modifications were made within a couple of weeks when a full timetable was restored.

In the intervening decade, two things have happened which put pressure on public services to be more risk averse. First, the Health and Safety Executive has taken a much more prominent role and, through the safety case system is able to have a far greater impact on the industry than before. It is, in essence, able to micromanage safety decisions which previously was impossible.

Second, the massive media coverage of railway accidents has made managers of transport companies incredibly risk averse. No one wants to be pilloried in the tabloid newspapers or, indeed, put in the dock for manslaughter charges because the police feel they have to be seen to be doing something in the face of a find ”who is to blame’ media onslaught. Whereas in the past, operation managers might have said that a risk was worth taking, now they feel that it is better to inconvenience the public rather than risk facing a media attack.

Ironically, the accident was caused by the fact that a line controller went against that grain and decided the train should continue despite the fact that a driver had reported it was making strange noises. The passengers were due to be detrained at Holborn, just one stop beyond Chancery Lane, when the accident occurred. London Underground say that even if the train had been empty, the line would still have closed but this seems scarcely credible given the relaxed attitude towards the previous incidents. Indeed, London Underground’s first mistake, of course, had been its failure to address the issue of motors falling off trains before it reached a crisis. As the other incidents had occurred either when the trains were empty or had not caused any injuries to the public, LU had not reacted with sufficient urgency to remedy the defect.

The risk averseness has been heightened by the absence of ‘air cover’ from the government. Alistair Darling, the Transport Secretary, has been virtually silent on the issue of the Central Line. He could have taken a more active role by pushing LU into hurrying up with the repairs and accepted that he would be included in any decision to bring back the service rapidly, therefore sharing the risk, but instead, it was nearly two months before he even summoned LU bosses to explain what was happening.

Another recent development which contributed to the impact of the accident is the way that organisations like the Underground are no longer staffed by managers who are lifelong railway career managers, but now have many people recruited from outside the industry. This has diluted the expertise and means that managers do not have the confidence and the experience to make technical decisions which to the public may look risky. An organisation more confident in its expertise would have, perhaps, instituted a system of daily checks, even if that involved the rapid building of a couple of extra pits, to ensure that the service could continue. In today’s climate, however, there is no Windmill spirit of the show must go on, despite the damage that was being caused to the London economy and the extra risks faced by people travelling on the congested roads instead of the statistically safer trains. Reducing a relatively low risk for Central Line passengers became the overriding determinant of policy.

London Underground’s current weakness is partly the result of a five year period of uncertainty caused by the development and introduction of the 30 year public private partnership designed to bring in some £16bn of investment. The resulting controversy has left London Underground managers punch drunk as they have been in the maelstrom of a controversy for so long.

This episode demonstrates that organisational change has a cost which is often way beyond the immediate figure of management time and energy. When New Labour ministers talk of modernising and transforming public services, often through the introduction of the private sector, they fail to realise that the revolutions they are promoting can have deeply damaging effects on the services they want to see improve.

That is not an argument against making changes, but they should only be introduced if the benefits will far outweigh the disadvantages of breaking up the existing structures. There is a tendency, particularly amongst Whitehall modernisers, to argue that old-style public services are moribund and require a shake-up. This conventional wisdom is belied by the facts. British Rail, for example, has, in hindsight, been demonstrated to have been far more successful at cost-cutting than its privatised successors.

There is one final interesting question. The BCV infraco has not transferred to the private sector but had it done so, who would have paid for the loss of service, which under the PPP would have cost at least £2m per day? In fact, the risk would have remained with London Underground, and consequently the public sector as the contracts have a let-out clause for any catastrophic risk the leads to closures of more than 48 hours.

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