Rail 542: Assembly report plays petty politics with July 7 attacks

The London Assembly’s report into the July 7 bombings unfairly pillories a group of public servants who responded admirably to an unprecedented event, argues CHRISTIAN WOLMAR.

The tendency of the British press to be universally negative about any public service does, at times, seem rooted in ideology rather than fact. One does not have to be a Martyn Lewis to realise that the recent coverage of the report by the London Assembly on the emergency response to the bombings on the London Underground on July 7 last year was, to say the least, unbalanced.

According to the Evening Standard, “Londoners triumphed but the system failed.” Well, the system didn’t fail. The response to an unprecedented attack was widely acclaimed and rightly so. The staff of the emergency services and London Underground, and indeed many members of the public, ensured that the rescue was carried out pretty smoothly given the enormous difficulties posed by explosions in four places.

Of course, there was terrible suffering and some people did not get the attention they needed as quickly as they should. Standing in a Tube train without any communications from the driver or other Underground staff for 40 minutes when you don’t know what has happened was a terrifying ordeal

Some background to the politics is necessary. The London Assembly is a strange construct. It is not a normal local authority with executive powers but, rather, a scrutiny body that checks on the performance of the mayor and his officials. It is, therefore, by nature adversarial but one would have thought that for once, given the efficiency of the rescue and the amazing speed with which the railway was operational again (contrast with the ten-week closure on the Central Line in 2003 for a minor derailment), the achievements of the public services would be celebrated.

But no. The Assembly report focuses far too much on one negative aspect, the failure of communications, rather than giving a more balanced assessment. Worse, just to make sure that the emergency services and the Underground management got a good kicking, the report was widely and selectively leaked in advance for political purposes by someone presumably close to the committee that produced it, setting the agenda for coverage of the story.

Nor did the compilers of the Assembly report ensure that they heard all sides of the story before producing it. As an ally of the mayor put it: “A select committee report this ain’t.” Narrow political interests, therefore, have been allowed to prevail, criticising the work of a group of public servants and rail workers who deserve nothing but praise for the way they reacted to an unprecedented event.

The communications issue is complex, involving different scenarios, some of which are not easily resolved because the Underground is, well, underground: there is communication between the driver and the passengers and network control, as well as between the different emergency services. Communication from the train is, indeed, antiquated but was made worse by the fact that at Russell Square the bomb damaged the train’s aerials, which also hampered the driver’s ability to talk to passengers. Apparently the British Transport Police has the only radios that work properly underground but the situation is being remedied.

Tim O’Toole, the highly esteemed head of the Underground, told the Assembly that a £2 billion digital radio system was being installed in the Tube over the next 20 years. While it is axiomatic that the Underground needs a good communication system, that is an awful lot of money, which raises, for me, not the question about whether the programme should be speeded up but, instead, whether it offers value for money.

I am not suggesting that some things did not go wrong on the day and that lessons cannot be learnt. What is objectionable is the tone of the report, its selective leaking and the politicisation of an issue which has nothing to be gained from an adversarial approach. The report has been extremely damaging to the morale of a lot of public servants who performed excellently. Sure, a few things could have been done better but we have to be wary of spending billions of pounds on ensuring that an emergency like this can be tackled efficiently when countless less dramatic and more mundane improvements to the Tube and the railway system could improve services for the millions who use them every day.

Indeed, the report itself admits that its recommendations could lead merely to a ‘slightly quicker and more effective emergency response’. Nor did anyone die as a result of the ‘failings’, all of which suggests the lurid headlines cannot be justified.

The report is written with 20/20 hindsight and the problem is that its recommendations address what happened on July 7 whereas any future emergency – whether an accident or caused by a terrorist – will be different. We could end up with the situation, as in aviation, where we get asked if we packed our own bag because, supposedly, the Lockerbie disaster was caused by someone being given a radio to take on board; and we get a ridiculous lecture about lifejackets when, in fact, the impact of ditching a modern jet, rather than a slower old prop plane, in the sea is likely to be fatal to all on board and the lifejackets have never saved any lives.

One has to be wary, too, of the demands of the survivors’ groups. They want to see a public inquiry but it is unclear what that would achieve apart from more bloodletting. The failings identified even in this highly politically charged report are not so damning as to seem to warrant the expense and the angst of an inquiry, even though it may be cathartic for many of those who suffered in the carnage. I accept, though, that it is a difficult call. Why did Ladbroke Grove and Southall get public inquiries and not Hatfield, which certainly raised just as many fundamental questions about the operation of the railway?

One of the interesting aspects of the report, not picked up by the press, is that it refers several times to the hope that various clauses in the Public Private Partnership between London Underground and the infrastructure companies would be renegotiated in 2010 (when there is the first periodic review in the 30-year deal) to take account of the need for better communication. This demonstrates the foolishness of the government having forced London Underground to sign up to a 30-year contract when all sorts of things would change in that time.

Indeed, the Assembly seems rather to fail to understand the nature of the contract, as the changes at each 71⁄2-year interval are not supposed to allow for a complete renegotiation of the contract, let alone its abandonment, but merely a repricing of the services provided under it. You can bet your bottom dollar that any contract variations, which could be negotiated now, will cost lots of mullah.

On a wider point, nothing is more misleading than the statement – mostly from the police – that such a terrorist attack was inevitable and that there will undoubtedly be more. That is completely wrong and is a self-justification on the part of the security services in their demands for ever more powers to restrict our liberties. Yes, the Underground is vulnerable and it may be attacked again, but there is no certainty that it will. Indeed, there is a perception that this type of extremism may well be on the wane – perhaps all the potential perpetrators have blown themselves up already. We don’t know if there is to be another attack and, while we should prepare for one, police officers should not be saying something that is demonstrably speculation.

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