Metronet fails the PPP test

You could hardly call the recent warm weather a heatwave. And yet here we are once again with the Tube in chaos. Trains are delayed as they creep along at 20 miles per hour. Hundreds of thousands of commuters sweat. And that’s when the trains are running at all: last weekend the District line was shut down completely. Meanwhile things are set to get worse, with more engineering closures at weekends and speed restrictions right through to August to make up for work that should have been carried out months ago.

The prime culprits? Metronet, the consortium responsible for maintaining all the lines except the Piccadilly, Jubilee and Northern. Metronet, along with Tube Lines, is one of two companies contracted under the Public Private Partnership to maintain and renew the Tube system over 30 years.

The two companies are paid around £1bn of public money per year to do this; the contract is now in its third year. So why is it still letting us down so badly?

The catalogue of recent mishaps started over Easter, when the Central Line between Leytonstone and Newbury Park was closed for engineering works – only for the company to realise it did not have enough men to do the job.

So it did no work at all during the closure.

Then on Monday last week, after engineering work at Farringdon, the first train of the day hit an electrical box – track had been realigned wrongly – causing widespread disruption. Worse, the following day, track circuits – an essential part of the signalling system – started playing up, again resulting in delays.

But then came Metronet’s tour de force. The sun started shining: there was a danger that tracks would buckle because of the heat. Speed restrictions of 20 mph, less than half the normal speed, had to be imposed on large sections. In anticipation of summer, rails have to be pre-stressed to prevent buckling, a routine but tricky process that involves unclipping the rails, and pulling out and replacing 800 metre lengths that are under stress.

Metronet simply failed to carry out this work. It claims this is because it has uncovered so many more faults on the track, blames the age of the infrastructure and says London Underground has not allowed sufficient closures for engineering work. Its chief executive, Andrew Lezala, replaced his hapless predecessor John Weight just a year ago in the £350,000-a-year job. He is already is under fire.but defended the company to The Standard: “We have been finding more faults, reducing the number of broken rails by replacing it but because March was cold, we could not restress a lot of the new rail. The District Line track has been neglected for years.”

But Howard Collins, London Underground’s Service Director, rejects this, pointing out that Metronet knew about these issues back in November. “It’s about planning and resourcing,” he says. “Metronet has been running this contract for three years: they should know about the condition of the track.” Meanwhile Tube Lines, the other infrastructure company, has carried out work without such problems.

The truth is that Metronet has shown itself repeatedly to be incompetent at its basic job of ensuring that the Tube is running properly.

Today, Her Majesty’s Railway Inspectorate will reveal that it has placed an “improvement notice” on Metronet over the high number of faults on the District Line track, demanding an explanation for this discrepancy.

Perhaps the greatest humiliation for Metronet is that London Underground is now offering it technical advice. As Peter Hendy, London’s Transport Commissioner,comments: “Where is the world-class engineering these companies are supposed to bring the contract?”

Yet the companies involved in the Metronet consortium – Balfour Beatty, and Atkins, Bombardier, EDF and Thames Water – are not only inconveniencing Tube travellers today. Some are bidding for yet more public work, including on the 2012 Olympic Games sites.

But as you fume on your idling Tube train, there is little comfort to be taken from the fact that London Underground and just about everyone else agrees that Metronet is doing a lousy job. For the complex provisions of the PPP contract mean that it is very difficult for LU to dump companies that don’t deliver.

The basic flaw of the PPP contract is that it is supposed to be “performance based”. Rather than being paid just to do a job, Metronet’s income depends on the effect of that work on passengers. If journey times and delays fall, the company is supposed to get more money.

But the contract does not appear to be hard enough on the company when things go wrong. The penalty payments are not a sufficient disincentive for it to get its act together. Last year, when even Metronet accepted that it had performed badly, the company still made £48m profit.

Londoners can take some solace from the way things are getting better on parts of the Tube – albeit gradually. New escalators, lifts and spruced-up stations are springing up around the system.

Reliability has improved on lines such as the Piccadilly, Central and Victoria. But they certainly should, given the amounts of money thrown at the problem under PPP. And other, more fundamental improvements will take many years yet.

The real culprit in this is sorry tale is Gordon Brown. He insisted that this complex contract – 181 performance indicators and tens of thousands of pages of documentation – should be foisted on the London Underground three years ago, in the face of widespread opposition from virtually anyone with the slightest knowledge of transport or contracting. The result is an expensive mess that is impossible to sort out any time soon: scrapping the contract would mean huge payments to the firms that have been failing to perform in the first place.

Perhaps if he gets promotion to next door, Mr Brown might care to sort out the mess he helped create. In the meantime, his friend, the new Transport Secretary Douglas Alexander, could start by commissioning an independent report on Metronet’s failings.

Christian Wolmar’s history of the Tube, The Subterranean Railway, is published by Atlantic, £9 99.

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