London goes down the tubes

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The Independent Online
It is a bizarre daily pageant. The highest-paid workers in Britain heading for state-of-the-art offices in the City of London, some of them dealing in millions of pounds every day, travelling on an underground system with the ambience of a 19th-century iron works, infested periodically with legions of rodents.

Tomorrow up to 100,000 City workers will be reluctantly freed from the tyranny of a Tube network which is lurching from crisis to farce and back again.

Over the next nine weeks part of the Northern Line - the busiest on the network - will be closed and commuters will have to walk, take a bus, drive or simply take to the streets and howl in frustration as they attempt to get to work in the Square Mile.

London Underground is shutting the stretch from Kennington to Moorgate so that engineers can undertake work which will at last allow the 40-year- old Tube trains to operate at speeds for which they were designed. It means that people like Sandra Macleod, an accountant with an investment bank, will have to spend an hour longer travelling from now on, using buses instead. "Monday morning is going to be a nightmare," she said. "A lot of desks in the City will be empty at nine o'clock."

This Northern Line project is part of a 20-year, pounds 1bn modernisation programme which began five years ago but cannot be accelerated for lack of money.

To add to this, there is the small matter of the Circle Line which feeds thousands more into the Square Mile, but which management has been forced to close. Engineers are replacing cast-iron roof beams which refuse to bend and can snap without warning. High Street Kensington and Gloucester Road stations only were to be shut, but the arrangement caused such mayhem that management decided to close the whole line.

An enraged John Prescott, Deputy Prime Minister with responsibility for transport, accused London Underground of presiding over a "mess" and warned the organisation that he would not tolerate similar chaos over the Northern Line.

The buck, of course, stops with Mr Prescott. He has been under fire for failing to win the transport battle in Cabinet. Last autumn his Transport Bill was left out of the Queen's Speech. His advocacy of the need to use public transport sits uneasily with his "two Jags" image. Within a few weeks he will be under scrutiny again when his draft Bill is finally published. It is likely that levies on workplace parking will go ahead, but the proposal will be fudged, with the policy not being implemented until after the next election.

One of the biggest charges of all against the deputy PM is that he has failed to ensure that the fundamental problem with the Tube - a chronic and massive failure to invest - is being addressed with clarity, urgency and efficiency. The Underground, used every day by 1.7 million commuters, needs pounds 1.5bn just to catch up with the backlog of work.

Tony Blair wanted the whole business sold off, while his deputy argued that the system should remain in state ownership but raise cash on the money markets. Gordon Brown, Chancellor of the Exchequer, refused to countenance borrowing from the private sector on the grounds that it would show up in the books as enhanced state debt. In no other country would such investment count against public sector borrowing.

Hence the much-maligned pounds 7.4bn public-private partnership finally set out by Mr Prescott. It is difficult to find many people who support the concept, apart from the companies which may profit from it.

Under this arrangement the network is being split into four bite-sized chunks. The company which will operate the trains, "Opsco", will remain in the public sector and under the control of London Underground. Three other companies are being created, "Infracos", which will have the responsibility of maintaining the infrastructure - stations, tunnels, tracks, signalling and so on - and will then charge the train operator for using them.

Last month Mr Prescott awarded Railtrack, which runs the infrastructure of the national rail network, control over the organisation responsible for "subsurface" lines: the Circle, District, East London, Hammersmith and City, and Metropolitan. This is a matter of some irony, given that he has previously cast its senior executives in the role of fat cats.

Its unique selling point - that it will link the Underground with the national system - is regarded with some suspicion by seasoned observers. Main line services would enter the network at Paddington and travel via the Circle and Metropolitan Lines to Euston and King's Cross as far as Liverpool Street. Critics contend that there is no spare capacity on this key part of the Circle Line with which the "overground" would link.

The whole process of overhauling the Tube is drastically behind schedule. It should have been completed by next April when public funding for the infrastructure is due to end, but it is now unlikely to be finished until a year later. Pressure is growing on the Government to spend about pounds 1bn to bridge the gap, while the cost of the much-postponed Jubilee Line Extension has overrun by pounds 300m.

To add to the uncertainty, but to placate critics, the Government has promised to abandon the whole public/private partnership plan if it finally proves that it does not represent "best value". Anarchist groups recently failed in their attempt to bring central London to a standstill. The Government might yet show them how it's done.