Rail 627: PPP will be a burden for new Underground boss

Transport for London has, wisely, played safe by appointing an old hand, Mike Brown, as head of London Underground to replace the much-missed American, Tim O’Toole. While O’Toole was selected after a worldwide trawl of experienced railroad managers, and was something of a surprise choice given that he had worked mostly with freight railways, Brown is an insider, a longstanding Underground man who left only a year ago to run Heathrow Airport for BAA.

 While the task facing O’Toole when he arrived at the Underground in 2003 was difficult as it coincided the introduction of the Public Private Partnership following the protracted controversy over its implementation, Brown’s is no less daunting given the financial constraints and contractual chaos facing the organisation.

 On the plus side, there is a lot to be excited about and in his departing interview with me, O’Toole, who left for family reasons, was deeply disappointed not to be staying on. New trains for the Victoria Line and London Overground are being delivered, and, even more exciting, the sub surface lines (Metropolitan, District, Hammersmith & City and Circle) stock, also now coming into service, are the Underground’s first air conditioned trains. Work has started on Crossrail  – though more on that later – the new and extended East London line is due to open next July, the massive Kings Cross St Pancras complex is being totally remodelled and the first of the major line refurbishments to be delivered under the PPP, the Jubilee is scheduled to be completed at the end of the year – though more on that, too, later.

 So it is easy to see why Brown has been tempted back. Brown is an operator – in the old fashioned railway sense of the word who knows how to run a railway – and is good in front of the cameras, managing, like O’Toole, to provide an impression of calm that not always accord entirely with what passengers experience on their daily journey.

 Once in the Underground family, it is difficult to leave it and Brown will be welcomed back on all sides. However, there is much that will be hugely unwelcome in Brown’s in-tray. Despite the huge sums being spent on investment – indeed partly because of them – Transport for London is facing a financial crisis which is bound to impact on the Underground budget. It is, in fact, being squeezed from all sides. Boris Johnson, elected on a low taxation platform and therefore reluctant to put up the council tax, has backed himself into a corner by spending money on the unnecessary replacement of bendy buses and cutting the western extension of the congestion charge zone at a time when the huge capital spending programme and the difficulties with the PPP is putting pressure on his budget.

 The PPP is, of course, by far Brown’s biggest problem. As I have written before, it is one of the great unheralded scandals of our age. There is no doubt that it has resulted in the waste of billions of pounds, all thanks to the dogmatism of Gordon Brown and the pusillanimity of ministers like Stephen Byers, the transport secretary who nodded it through like a donkey shielding from the sun. Yet, because of its complexity and lack of transparency, the national media has rarely taken an interest in the subject, allowing the Labour government to get away with one of its biggest and most expensive blunders in domestic policy.

 The biggest outrage was the £500m cost of setting up the contracts in the first place, but this probably pales into insignificance with the sums now pouring out of TfL to the contractors and to clear up the mess of the failed Metronet contract. The PPP was foisted on Transport for London by Brown and the Treasury in the face of widespread opposition and warnings from virtually everyone in the transport industry that the concept was unworkable, far too complex, and unlikely to deliver the investment programme at a reasonable price.

 And so it has proved. With the demise of Metronet, the PPP is two thirds dead (if that is possible!) and the remaining third, the Tube Lines contract for the Jubilee, Northern and Piccadilly lines is in the balance. First, the company is clearly in danger of not completing the Jubilee upgrade, including the complicated resignalling scheme, in time.

 Transport for London have gone on the offensive. In a remarkable attack on Tube Lines, Brown’s temporary predecessor, Richard Parry lambasted the company for its performance on the Jubilee. He used the annual report into PPP performance, published in early September, to mount an extraordinary attack on Tube Lines using most undiplomatic language. He wrote that Tube Lines ‘hunger for more weekend closures has stretched stakeholder and customer patience to breaking point’ and that the company’s progress was ‘unacceptable’.

 Secondly, there is the small matter of the gap in the assessment of what the next phase of the PPP contract will cost. The massive PPP programme is divided into 7.5 year chunks with the price of the next period being renegotiated with the arbiter. Currently there is a gap of around £3bn between what Tube Lines is seeking and what Transport for London wants to pay. Already, in his preliminary determination, the Arbiter suggested an extra £1.4bn already blowing a hole in TfL’s budget. If the Arbiter decides on any extra, that will put further pressure on TfL but if he holds firm, then Tube Lines may walk away from the contract.

 Crossrail, too, remains an issue. As I have mentioned before, even though work has started on a couple of sites, there is still a lack of certainty that the scheme will actually come to fruition. The Tories, while apparently promising it will go ahead, still do not give the unequivocal commitment to funding it which is required (although at a conference early in the summer, I managed to get Stephen Hammond MP, the junior shadow transport spokesman, to say that it would go ahead, but ultimately the decision will be with his namesake, Philip, who is shadow chief secretary to the treasury)

 Just to add to Brown’s problems, there is the thorniest issue, the one which may have the most immediate impact, which is, of course, industrial relations. Brown has long experience of the troublesome Tube unions in his five years as chief operating officer and probably one of the reasons for appointing him is that he is more likely than most to be able to negotiate with them and avert strikes. However, they are in particularly truculent mood and may try to test his mettle early on.

 One suspects that there must have been a bit of a push factor in driving Brown back to the Tube family given that BAA has falling passenger numbers,  more building work in the offing, a terrible reputation and teething problems over Terminal 5 (though by all accounts largely solved), all overshadowed by the massive controversy over the third runway. Maybe he thinks the Underground will be a cushier life after that lot. But I doubt it.


A long wait at Waterloo


Sometimes the occasionally hapless Mystic Wolmar gets it right. Too bloody right! At the beginning of last year he predicted that the Waterloo International platforms would remain empty at least until the end of 2008, and he reiterated the prediction this year. Now, it has emerged that the five much needed platforms are unlikely to be in service until at least 2013/4 because there is no money to pay for the required works.

 This information was elicited in a completely garbled and semi-literate response from the Department for Transport by a Freedom of Information request by Caroline Pigeon, the Libdems representative on the London Assembly Transport Committee. After a few vague sentences about work being planned for 2013/4, the Department says: ‘The Department’s expectation is that WIT platforms will be used in the future’. Well that’s a relief, then.

 To be fair to the Department, Waterloo is the subject of a massive building programme and the precise plan has still not been worked out but keeping five platforms empty (although platform 20 may be used earlier) for five years shows the lack of flexibility and can-do spirit in today’s railway. Of course they may not be correctly signalled and there are not the right points to provide services for where they are most needed, but it is a fantastic waste of a resource that, with a bit of common sense and application, could be used.

 Add to that, the Office of Rail Regulation wants to get involved, having issued a statement that the platforms should be open by December 2011.  That’s all very well, but what if no one gets their act together – what will the regulator do about it? Fine Network Rail, or the Department for that matter? Such episodes expose the whole nonsense of having a toothless regulator, getting involved in the minutiae of running the railway which creates more bureaucracy and achieves little.

 Yes, all those involved need a kick in the pants, but rather than waiting so long for the perfect solution, why not put these platforms into use on a temporary basis. Now here’s an idea – since these platforms lead to an over pass which takes the line through south London, why not use them for passengers to Gatwick. Surely that could happen straight away, relieving pressure from Victoria, where the Tube is frequently closed because of the number of passengers coming in from the main line station. Oh but then the franchisees would need to be involved, as well as the regulator, Network Rail, the Department and ….oh I give up, leave them empty.

  • “…since these platforms lead to an over pass which takes the line through south London, why not use them for passengers to Gatwick.”

    The Eurostar chord connects with the ex-LB&CR’s Chatham Main Line, not the LB&SCR’s Brighton Main Line. (Gatwick Express services run from Victoria via Clapham Junction. You don’t need the flyover at all to have them reach Waterloo: just follow the main tracks out of Waterloo which already go to Clapham Junction.)

    “Surely that could happen straight away, relieving pressure from Victoria, where the Tube is frequently closed because of the number of passengers coming in from the main line station.”

    This is an attitude that really annoys me—and, I suspect, many South Londoners. Barring a few short stretches of track, most people who want to get to Waterloo can *already do so*. Services tend to be offered to both Charing X and Victoria. People who take trains to Victoria want to *go* to Victoria! Who knew?

    The most sensible way to relieve Victoria would be to divert the Brighton Line services into Waterloo instead. There’s no need for fancy flyovers and chords: they’re already perfectly well connected at Clapham Junction. This would free up anywhere up to eight platforms at Victoria, which could then be used for the Chatham Line.

    Unfortunately, as I’m sure you well know, the problem with the Eurostar platforms at Waterloo isn’t that they’re sitting empty: it’s that there’s minimal access to them from the classic tracks and the approach throat to the station is less than perfect. Any attempts to change these will cause major disruption to passengers due to engineering possessions. The usual “compensation merry-go-round” foisted on the rail network by its part-privatisation would apply and is likely the main reason nothing is happening. Yet.

    Legalese takes forever to write properly. It’s essentially a form of programming, except they have to use English—a notoriously ambiguous language at the best of times—instead of a proper programming language which was specifically designed for the purpose. This is why lawyers get paid so damned much.

    Professional, career politicians tend to have either a legal or accountancy background and, to a man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. The upshot of which is that Labour and Tory solutions to almost every problem result in painfully slow and difficult cross-corporation communication due to the preference for legal, contract-heavy interfaces. And if beating the problem to death with new laws doesn’t work, they’ll try tying it up in accountancy.

    We get the governments we deserve. I don’t know why everyone acts so surprised.

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  • Greg. Tingey

    How much would it cost to deliberately crash PPP?
    What will happen when PPP crashes of its’ own accord – as it surely will?

    As for stroppy unions on the Tube, that’s because they are behaving like their arrogant overloud and bullying bosses.
    Can something PLEASE be done to permanently TURN OFF about 95% of all the unnecessary and overloud “announcements” on the tube?
    Please note, I’m not saying “turn the syatem off” – it IS needed – for emergencies, and out-of-course events.

  • Ken Welsby

    Greg might find announcements on the Tube, or for that matter, the bus, to be “unnecessary and overloud” from which I deduce that he may well be an able-bodied, frequently standing passenger, whose travel for the most part uses familiar routes to well-known destinations.
    In which case, you may well wish to buy a iPod, or join the public library and read a book while travelling.
    Let me give you some examples of why many passengers need announcements:
    – unfamiliar with route and/or destination
    – unable to stand [elderly / pregnant / injured / disabled] with limited visibility through the windows – even if it would be recognisable
    – poor reading or English language skills
    – passage to the exist obstructed by standing passengers / buggies / luggage
    As someone who falls into the first, and often the second category, I have a one-word definition for those who complain about on-board announcements: Selfish.

  • @Ken:

    Nobody is complaining about the mere existence of PA systems and their use for genuinely useful announcements. The rail networks have had PA systems for decades, but it’s only in recent years that they’ve taken to abusing them. There is hard, incontrovertible research which PROVES that “information overload” is a real, valid concern.

    “- unfamiliar with route and/or destination”

    The destination is displayed on the front of the train, on the information boards both on the platform, the concourse, and (in many cases) in the train itself. It is also announced on the station platform prior to the train’s departure, often accompanied by the full litany of station stops. Nobody has ever complained about this. It’s useful information, conveyed at right time.

    Listing every single station stop *on board the train*, between each and every station, is overkill—on some commuter services reading the full list takes longer than the journey between each station—and it is therefore fair to expect passengers to be able to read a linear diagrammatic map. These are also displayed prominently on all platforms and most trains.

    Those who are blind or partially sighted have alternative sources of information available to them. Platform announcements being just one. (The best time to learn where the train is going is *before* you board it.) Platform Help Points and staff are another. Fellow passengers are yet another. (I appreciate we’ve become an increasingly sociopathic people, but *asking* fellow passengers if this is the right train isn’t all that difficult!)

    If you still can’t work out where the damned train is going, I strongly advise you seek medical and / or psychiatric help.

    “- unable to stand [elderly / pregnant / injured / disabled] with limited visibility through the windows – even if it would be recognisable”

    “Bromley South! THIS is Bromley South! Change here for services via Catford and Peckham Rye!”

    Is this not enough for you? Such announcements have been the norm for decades.

    “- poor reading or English language skills”

    Most common signage is easily understood from context. I’ve driven through Germany and Switzerland frequently and I have no trouble understanding that “Eingang” and “Ausfahrt” mean “Way In” and “Exit”, even though I don’t speak the language. (I’m fluent in Italian and French, but not German.)

    Most EU nations have adopted standard icons for most common signs too.

    And, again, if you’re not sure of your understanding, you can always *ask*. The UK is one of the most culturally and ethnically diverse nations in Europe. You’ll be surprised just how many of us can help.

    “- passage to the exist obstructed by standing passengers / buggies / luggage”

    The luggage, buggies and rat-racers have to go somewhere. Granted, some trains are better designed than others, but this has nothing to do with announcements. Pull that *free* railway timetable—with its little route diagram—out of your damned pocket and you’ll know well in advance when you need to get off. (And yes, you can usually get these timetables in languages other than English. You can even get them in large print text and Braille.)

    “I have a one-word definition for those who complain about on-board announcements: Selfish.”

    I have a one-word definition for those who don’t bother reading other people’s contributions to a debate before contributing an utterly irrelevant and selfish rant, but it’s considered rude to use such words in a public forum.

    There are *plenty* of sources of information for any and every man, woman and child using the UK’s public transport network. This is a country where individual councils willingly offer translations in up to *140* languages, including British Sign Language. (Lewisham Borough Council offers this, for example.)

    We’re also one of the few countries on the planet to have standardised on *high platforms* for its railways. In Italy and France, getting aboard most trains is akin to climbing the north face of the Eiger, yet *their* elderly and disabled travellers seem to manage just fine. Because they’re not so stupid as to try and use those rail networks without some *help*.

  • Simon

    Ken may also do well to backtrack to an earlier topic of debate and discussion on this website where Christian laments the overproliferation of too many unnecessary PA announcements. He may find the various views and thoughts articulated therein of crucial interest. Suffice to say, I won’t bother to reiterate what has already been dissected so thoroughly on this thread……

  • Anoop

    Re-using Waterloo International

    The lines to Waterloo and Victoria are on opposite sides of Clapham Junction station, so it may not be easy for Brighton mainline trains to run to Waterloo. It might be better to divert SouthEastern’s Victoria services to Waterloo International instead, using Eurostar’s old route (via Brixton and Stewart Lane viaduct). This would ease congestion at Victoria and cost less than rebuilding Victoria tube station. Waterloo tube station is not too crowded and can cope with additional passengers.

  • David

    Going back to Christian’s original posting about the PPP, he quite rightly draws attention to the cost of setting it up; a tube car will cost round about £1m, so how many underground lines could have been re-equipped with new rolling stock if the half-billion quid had been spent differently?

    Millions of pounds are currently being spent on consultancy throughout the railway industry; moreover, the contractual structure necessary to operate our rail network incurs considerable cost, often based upon the good old Common Law principle of damages (in railway speak, compensation payments). What has surprised me is that no political party has so far suggested that our rail infrastructure, passenger train operations and London Transport (rail, bus and tram) be returned to the public sector because of the savings which could be achieved. Most compensation payments would disappear, and the need to use consultants would be removed.

    Over the life of a parliament, wouldn’t the total saving to the taxpayer would equate to billions of pounds? And wouldn’t it be a better option than to defer the pension age to 66?

  • Geoff Brown

    Use of Waterloo International
    I think everyone is getting carried away here. We are talking about what could easily be done now, and in the peaks if we are talking about relieving overcrowding at Victoria. Don’t get hung up on the ‘waste’ of 5 (or 4) platforms either- it is the track capacity on the approaches that governs. I have seen somewhere that Queenstown Road- Vauxhall is the most overcrowded section of route anywhere.
    Eurostar only ever ran around 3tph in each direction, and mostly on 1 track (the Windsor Reversible). To that extent Gatwick Express (4tph) might suit, particularly as Airline passengers merely want to go to ‘London’.There may be capacity via Herne Hill, vacated both by Eurostar and by some Chatham line traffic diverted to HS1, but in any case the route is surely unacceptably slow. Sean’s suggestion would require reinstatement of a connection at Clapham Junction, and, as Anoop points out, would involve crossing, on the flat, from the Brighton side to the Windsor side. His suggestion of SE services could have merit, especially to destinations not already served from Waterloo East / London Bridge. The Maidstone line comes to mind as, again, it only goes to one ‘London’ terminal anyway.

  • David is incorrect in stating “that no political party has so far suggested that our rail infrastructure, passenger train operations and London Transport (rail, bus and tram) be returned to the public sector because of the savings which could be achieved.” The Green Party opposed rail and tube privatisation and has campaigned for their return to the public sector ever since.
    For example, about 6 months before Railtrack went bust the party attempted to introduce a bill into the House of Lords to renationalise it. The government refused and the minister said that everything was hunky dory in the rail industry. 6 months later they looked pretty stupid but the the minister had already moved on to screw up some other department.

    Alan Francis, Green Party Transport Speaker