Dear John MacGregor: Who's in charge? asked one of the victims of the latest London Underground snarl-up. Nobody really, came the reply. Perhaps the Transport Secretary can explain ..

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Your press office is unwilling or unable to tell me when you last travelled on the Undergound, which suggests to me that it was a long time ago. I don't blame you. We would all avoid doing so if we could.

I mean, have you seen the official statement put out yesterday by poor old London Underground after the latest monumental cock-up? You know, the power failure which wasn't London Transport's fault. The one that kept 100,000 people jammed in 300 stranded trains for an average of 40 minutes during the morning rush hour.

'It was,' according to Roger Shire, the media relations manager, 'a 'very brief' incident, well-managed and well-controlled, and recovered as quickly as possible.' He could have fooled me, and the other 99,999 hapless victims.

It's enough to make you want to find out who is in charge of the Underground these days. Which is what I tried to do, only to discover that the short answer is 'Nobody on a full-time basis' - and that the vacuum at the top is your fault.

Back in 1989, your predecessor Paul Channon appointed as chairman Sir Wilfrid Newton. He had been responsible for Hong Kong's admirable underground system. Sir Wilfrid's term was due to run out on 12 March this year. So, 18 months ago, with your encouragement, he went to the private sector to find his successor. Wisely, he wanted a hard-nosed business leader of high calibre to preside over privatisation. He got Dr Alan Watkins, who had run Hawker Siddeley, and gave him a year as deputy chairman to play himself in.

Were you delighted? Were you heck] The pair of 'em soon got up your nose by insisting, increasingly publicly, that the system was falling apart as a result of chronic under-investment and the ideological distaste the Government has for public transport.

You couldn't bring yourself to sack Sir Wilfrid, but you made damned sure that Dr Watkins would not succeed. On 11 March, Dr Watkins announced that he was packing it in because 'any chairman of LT needs the unequivocal support of all those in government with whom he has to do business. In my case this has not been forthcoming . . .'

On his penultimate day in office, the outgoing Sir Wilfrid issued an impudent statement radiating support for his disgraced deputy. He 'deeply regretted' that Dr Watkins was not to be promoted, and talked of his 'tireless efforts which would have been invaluable to London'.

And this is where your troubles (and ours) started. You have been unable to find anybody ready, willing and able to take on the running of an underfunded railway system that you appear to hold in contempt.

Humiliatingly, you had to ask Sir Wilfrid to postpone retirement and mind the shop on a part-time basis. This is no way to run a railroad.

I'm told that Dr Watkins has not yet emptied his office. Perhaps, if you tell him you are sorry, he might still be prepared to take the chairmanship. It's a nasty job, but somebody has to do it.

(Photograph omitted)

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