London cannot cope with closing the Tube

The idea of closing sections of the Northern line for months to carry out major repairs suggested by the Tube’s managing director, Tim O’Toole smacks of desperation.

On the face of it, there are some good reasons why closures could be necessary. The Northern Line is the oldest Tube line in the world and parts of it date back to 1890 when the section between the City and Stockwell opened. Over a century of battering by hundreds of trains per day, with only four hours at night to carry out engineering repairs, has taken its toll.

According to the management, there are major problems with the ‘track geometry’ – in other words the there are far too many bumps and minor faults in the rails which mean the ride for passengers is anything but smooth. Moreover, the number of signal failures is increasing, many of which are also caused by problems with the ageing rails as they house the track circuits which show whether there is a train on the line or not. When the circuit fails, the signals go to red and all the trains stop causing lengthy delays.

Some parts of the line, notably the City branch, are particularly bad and while the maintenance companies can patch and mend in the nightly four hour long closures, major jobs have to wait for occasional weekend closures or have to be carried out over several weeks which is inefficient and expensive.

The obvious solution, then would be to close the line in sections and replace long sections of track over a period of weeks or months. The idea is to split the Northern into seven sections, and close one at a time over a period of several years.

Yet since the first part of the Underground system opened in 1863, it has been possible to avoid such major closures. There has been the odd exception, such as when the lay out was reorganised in the Earl’s Court area a few years ago, and, of course, unscheduled closures like the 68 day shutdown of the Central Line following the Chancery Lane derailment two years ago.

So why has the suggestion for lengthy closures of a very busy line been put forward now? The reason is the failure of the Public Private Partnership scheme to show any major positive results in its first two years of operation.

The PPP was pushed through by the Labour government, against the advice of virtually all transport experts, as a new way of maintaining the Underground system which involved giving private companies 30 year contracts to look after the track and infrastructure. The messy scheme was then handed over to the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, who had vehemently opposed the idea.

The PPP has proved, as all independent analysts predicted, to be a bonanza for the private companies who making hefty profits which are almost guaranteed by the virtually risk-free contracts they have been given. There is remarkably little to show for the £1bn per year of taxpayers money which is going into the scheme, about a tenth of which goes straight into shareholders’ pockets.

Sure, there are a few refurbished stations and the performance has improved, but as Tim O’Toole admits, ‘the improvement is from a very low base, a system that was deemed totally unacceptable, and so really to say that things are a bit better is to damn the companies with faint praise’.

Indeed, for that kind of money we ought to be seeing marble covered walls in the stations and gold plated rails. But we are not and both parties to the contract are suffering from widespread public criticism. The private companies which make up the two consortia, Tube Lines and Metronet, may be satisfying their shareholders in the short term, but their image is taking a pounding as there has been widespread criticism of the easy profits they are making, even in the City.

The London Underground management, is also keen to make changes to the PPP because improvements on the Tube have been coming through so slowly and passengers wonder where all the money being spent is going. A line closure may offer quicker or even more improvements, such as more stations with lifts that could be used by disabled people.

Transport for London for London is also being criticised because, of the growing feeling among Londoners that it is a large bureaucracy with dozens of senior managers who are paid six figure salaries. At the top of the pyramid is Bob Kiley who stands to receive over £600,000 this year provided he meets most of his bonus targets.

If a section of the Underground were closed for several weeks, millions – or even possibly tens of millions – of pounds would be saved on maintenance costs. Work that would normally take a couple of years could be finished in weeks. Thousands of hours are wasted every night by workers who are paid for a full shift but only have between 1am and 5am to carry out any productive work. The rest of the time they are waiting for the line to close, or knocking off early because services are restarting.

However, there are several obstacles to the idea. Can London really cope without whole sections of the Northern Line? Perhaps it is feasible to close, although North and South Londoners who regularly use the line would not agree. However, Underground sources admit privately that there is really no way that major sections through central London, which act as important distributors of passengers from main line stations like King’s Cross, Euston and Charing Cross, could be shut down.

Most importantly, a deal that benefitted Londoners, rather than the private companies would have to be struck. Under the PPP, the maintenance companies already know how much they are going to get for carrying out major work such as rerailing the Northern Line and if Londoners have to suffer the inconvenience of a line closure, then they, rather than the private companies, should benefit.

Given the complexities of the PPP scheme, it is unlikely that the two parties would be able to come to a mutually acceptable deal. Therefore, this may be a superficially attractive idea but one that on analysis seems untenable. London’s commuters suffer enough without having to worry about whether their line is about to be shut for several months. This plan should be strangled at birth and, instead, more pressure should be put on the maintenance companies to deliver what they promised at the inception of the PPP, a major and rapid improvement in London’s most vital transport artery.

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