Plundering London Underground. By Janine Booth

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Plundering London Underground. By Janine Booth

Published:

Thu, 05/06/2014 - 13:23

By:

paul
Plundering London Underground. By Janine Booth
Published: 
05 June, 2014
DAN CARRIER

IT was on a Sunday morning in October, 2003, when the accident happened. A northbound train heading through a tunnel towards Camden Town station saw its last carriage flip off the rails, smash into a wall and break loose. Seven people were injured. 

Worryingly, it was the third incident of its type in a matter of weeks – and had followed two tragedies on mainline rail networks at Paddington and Potters Bar, in which 38 people died.

These incidents led to much discussion in Parliament over the safety of the rail network – and shone a light on the private firms responsible for maintaining the tracks trains run on.

In a new book, Plundering London Underground by Janine Booth, the story of how New Labour tried to fix decades of under-investment through implementing a Public-Private Partnership is laid bare. She reveals how the Underground, with its iconic map, roundels and Art Deco stations, has been a continuous political battleground since the 1920s over maintenance, staffing, ownership and how to pay for it all.

Janine, a National Executive member of the Railway, Maritime and Transport Union, has worked on the Underground since 1997 and saw the invention and implementation of the PPP unfold. 

The PPP story starts in 1997. After 18 years of Tory rule, the tube system was falling to pieces and was symptomatic of a post-Thatcher era where large-scale infrastructure had either been privatised or had been run into the ground through a year-on-year fall in public spending. 

“Passengers made 800 million journeys along 244 miles of track. But it was failing,” writes Janine. London Underground had set five targets they sought to reach based on factors such as reliability, safety and budget. Three were missed that year.

Janine offers a succinct overview of how the tube was built and managed. 

She describes how up until 1929, the tube lines were run by individual firms. Labour Transport Minister Herbert Morrison united it under one body by establishing the London Passenger Transport Board, melding together powerful business interests who had previously managed the system with government controls. It was a halfway house: it was neither full public ownership nor did it offero industrial democracy. 

A huge works programme from 1937 onwards vastly improved the network – new stations, new lines, new rolling stock, all paid for by public funds. But in 1948, London Underground was taken on by the British Transport Commission, meaning a nationwide body was now in control. They shelved the works programme laid out before the war, instead concentrating on national rail services. 

In 1963, the tube was handed back to London bodies and investment came until the mid-1970s. In the 1980s, with the GLC at war with Margaret Thatcher’s government, the tube suffered. Thatcherism was all about dismantling public ownership, control, funding, integration and the public service ethos – all the factors Janine says makes for a healthy tube. 

So New Labour saw giving London a transport system fit for the 21st century as a priority – the issue was how to pay for it. With Tony Blair and Gordon Brown promising to stick to Tory spending plans for the first two years of their tenure, they sought investment elsewhere. In 1998, deputy prime minister John Prescott, a former transport union shop steward and son of a railway worker, told the Commons he had “a radical, modern and imaginative solution... an entirely new approach... a third way”.

He went on to outline how the tube was in desperate need of a cash injection (figures show that in 1998, the system needed £1.2bn alone to for vital outstanding repairs). 

The answer was the Public Private Partnership. Essentially, it would split the network into groups of lines that would be the responsib­ility of an “Infraco” – an infrastructure company leased to a private firm. London Underground would operate trains, stations and signals and then would pay a fee to the Infraco. The Infraco would be expected to invest in improving the infrastructure. 

The book outlines funding facts that are eyewatering: just procuring the contracts cost the public purse £455m, with the Infracos allowed to claim back their costs of bidding for the job even if they were not selected. 

It took five years to get PPP for the tube in place, and it soon became clear that the firms who took the work on were unable to deliver on promises. Repairs slowed, infrastructure deteriorated, and safety was an issue – highlighted by the derailments of 2003.  

In conclusion, Janine sets out a case for the public ownership of the tube: she says the most efficient way of running such a transport system is to keep it publicly owned, unified, under the control of an elected London body, to ensure it is adequately funded and allowed to operate as a public service rather than a commercial business.  

By 2010, the PPP project had fallen to pieces, with contracts unfulfilled. As the late Bob Crow said, the PPP had been sold as a magic wand: “Ministers even claimed PPP would need no public money at all, somehow the private sector was to magically and benignly plough money into the tube. It was to be one of the biggest cons in postwar British political history.”

• Plundering London Underground. By Janine Booth, £13.95, Merlin Press

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