Leading Article: The Tube managers should be replaced

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The Independent Culture
MIND THE gap. A chasm has opened up between the perception and the reality of London Underground. The Circle Line is to close for two months and John Prescott is under fire for not producing nirvana on rails within 25 months of Labour's election. The perception is that the tube network is overcrowded, unreliable and poor value for money - none of which is as true as people think it is.

We should be clear about what is right and what is wrong with the network, and why it matters not just to the people of London. Most people in Britain come to the "great cesspool" for business, shopping or culture often enough to care about how to get across it. Whether they are disgorged at the rail termini - ringed around the Circle Line - or come by road, or air, the simplest way to get around is by tube. Without it, London simply would not function, and England would be just another dull region of western Europe. For that reason alone, the tube network is much better than people think. It is huge, simple to use and moves vast numbers of people every day. For all the complaints, it is reliable, although some bits more than others.

Nor is it "too expensive". If metros elsewhere are cheaper, it is because they receive more subsidy from the taxpayer. But anyone who says fares should be cheaper has to make the case to the taxpayers of Hull, Aberdeen or Portadown. There is a case for national subsidy of the capital's transport system, but no case for increasing it.

However, London Underground could be much better than it is. In the modern jargon, its customer service interface is dismal: it is dirty and does not have enough well-motivated staff to keep it clean, make passengers feel safe and help the confused, elderly and disabled. London Underground has shown that it cannot manage big engineering projects well. The fact that it did not realise it would have to shut down the whole Circle Line is only the latest example. The management of the Jubilee Line extension had to be taken away from it in order to finish on time.

The tube's management, therefore, should be replaced. John Prescott's attempt to keep the train services in the public sector, while privatising the track, should be abandoned. The tube and the buses should be run by private companies, overseen by a public body to ensure an integrated network.

Private operators could innovate, on the basis of minimum standards, and try out such bright ideas as women-only carriages or the return of bus conductors. That is what rail operators have done, and passenger traffic has increased as a result. Learning the negative lessons of rail privatisation, the contracting authority would have to watch tube operators carefully. But the present management has shown it is not up to the job. The Underground is an historic asset for the capital: if it were better managed it could be a source of pride again.