Is closing the Tube really necessary

It is the first stage of the most ambitious engineering programme on the Tube, involving modernisation of track, signalling and stations. So surely it makes sense, as London Underground announced yesterday, to close sections of the Northern and other lines at weekends from next month, to speed up the work? Don’t be so sure. As you fume sitting in traffic on a replacement bus, the inconvenience might be benefitting the engineering companies carrying out the work rather than London’s Tube passengers.

Weekend closures are nothing new: recently there have been frequent shutdowns of the northern side of the Circle line and some of the outer fringes of the network. But the number and frequency of the weekend closures announced yesterday, together with the five-month shutdown of the Waterloo & City, is unprecedented.

It will unleash chaos. Closing the system at weekends is no longer the easy option that it was before the consumer boom turned both Saturday and Sunday into shopping binges. Stations like Covent Garden and Mornington Crescent used to close at weekends; now they are full to bursting, as is much of the system. Many parts of London experience their worst congestion on the roads on a Sunday. Closing chunks of the Tube will make the mess worse. And that is before anyone has factored in the inevitable Monday-morning over-runs of engineering work.

The argument in support of this huge inconvenience is that the massive, 30-year Public Private Partnership contracts between London Underground and the two private infrastructure companies, Tube Lines and Metronet, involve such a large amount of work that it is impossible to keep the system running normally. But while the PPP is, at last, beginning to deliver some noticeable improvements, this is a feeble excuse.

In 1923, the City half of the Northern line had to have the diameter of its tunnel widened from 10ft 2ins to 11ft 6ins, as the two sections of the railway had been built by two separate companies to different specifications. The bulk of the work to replace 22,000 tunnel rings was carried out at night by teams of workmen working simultaneously at 60 different sites while the line ran normally during the day. Nowadays there are additional health and safety requirements. Nevertheless, the engineers of 80 years ago showed a level of ingenuity and a show-must-go-on mentality that seems to have been buried under PPP’s morass of contracts and clauses.

The PPP was supposed to deliver private-sector expertise and new ways of doing things, but instead it seems to mean that the companies operate in their own interests – which usually involve saving money at the public’s expense. They have a financial incentive to shut down services to carry out work. They are supposed to be allowed a set number of closures, but clearly this figure is now being increased, following a series of behind-the-scenes negotiations.

This will save the companies huge sums. Under the normal maintenance arrangements, all work has to be carried out in the four hours when the system is fully shut down in the early hours of the morning – so the workers are paid for a full night shift, even though in practice they work for half that time. Once weekend closures are allowed, not only does the infraco get increased hours out of its staff, but there are huge other savings in terms of not having to move equipment around and getting access to a site.

This sort of problem comes back to the basic illogicalities of the PPP.

Railways operate best when they are under one single management, able to balance the commercial needs of the operator and the system’s engineering requirements. But here those decisions are not made by one team: like the national railway, the Tube is split between the operator, London Underground, run by Transport for London, and the contractors, which maintain the system. The very nature of PPP is that it is adversarial, setting the companies against London Underground; a steady stream of disputes go to arbitration and even the courts.

We may be stuck for now with PPP. But the companies have to be kept on a tight leash, especially during the new round of Tube closures. Already they have been up to all sorts of tricks, such as carrying out huge amounts of work on the least-used parts of the network, such as the Hainault loop at the eastern end of the Central line, where it is easier to work than in the centre.

And we have already seen regular late running of night-time engineering work, causing massive disruption for tens of thousands of morning rush-hour commuters. Why? Because it is cheaper for the offending infracos to pay the fines for such over-runs than to pay the staff to pack up tools early.

There is a risk of the same thing happening with weekend work, and it will require strict supervision by London Underground to ensure that the arrangement is not abused. If it saves them money, then those benefits must be shared and not simply end up in the pockets of their shareholders.

The ultimate test will be whether, after a closure, there is a clear improvement in the service. Without that, public support for London Underground could drain away. Worse, a line that has been shut for several weekends might require the same set of closures in a year or two. There is nothing new about users of the Northern line being enraged about the standard of the service they get. But if London Underground’s gamble with these closures fails, its users will have every right to be furious.