Underground lines face shutdown

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Closures of large stretches of the London Underground are under consideration to speed up the revamp of the creaking network under the £14bn public-private partnership (PPP).

Both Metronet and Tubelines, the infrastructure companies that control the Tube, are pressing to be allowed to shut down parts of the system, a complete reversal of one of the key elements of the bids that won them the PPP. And it is understood that London Underground's new boss, Tim O'Toole, may also be willing to entertain the idea, believing it could save Transport for London (TfL), the body that now controls the Tube, hundreds of millions of pounds.

The volte-face comes within weeks of Mr O'Toole arriving from the US to take charge of the Underground.

In the original plans, signed off by the two bidding companies, London Underground and the Government, earlier this year, all maintenance work to revitalise the Tube would take place either in the four hours when it is not running at night, or at weekends when closures would not cause too much disruption.

However, the two infrastructure companies are now lobbying to be allowed to close down parts of the Tube for weeks at a time to complete large projects, a process known as blockading. Terry Morgan, chief executive of Tubelines, told The Independent on Sunday: "There is a question over how we manage our programme on engineering. It may be a good idea to revisit the approach over blockades, and whether that would be a better solution for all parties involved."

Metronet also confirmed it was in favour of blockading. "In the long term very large savings could be made and the work could be completed in a much shorter time."

TfL, the group controlled by the office of the London Mayor which gained control of the Underground only a few weeks ago, said it had no plans to agree to blockades at the moment but added: "For some major projects, if it is in everybody's interest and economically the best solution, and can be done without too much disruption, then this might be revisited."

Two events have brought a change of heart on blockading. One was the forced closure of the Central Line earlier this year after the Chancery Lane accident, which did not cause as much disruption as was feared. "When the line was shut, London did not grind to a halt," said one senior source.

The other is TfL's shortfall in income from the congestion charge. Lower-than-expected traffic in central London plus large numbers of people avoiding paying the charge has led to a potential black hole in TfL's accounts that could be plugged if Metronet and Tubelines passed on savings they made from being allowed to blockade the Tube.

Major projects that might benefit from blockading include new signalling for the Jubilee and Northern lines, work on which is not due to start for at least five years.

* London Underground is in talks with cable company NTL about installing a digital radio network on the Tube, writes Clayton Hirst.

Passengers with portable radios would be able to tune in to a range of stations. NTL is also exploring the possibility of using the signal to send video data to hand-held computers. Discussions are still at an early stage but it is understood that Capital Radio has expressed an interest in the venture.

A London Underground spokeswoman said: "It is a question of viability as it would only be done on a commercial basis, but I can confirm that we are looking at the possibility for the future."