Parliament - Underground Funds: Blair gives Tube bosses final warning

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THE PRIME Minister yesterday backed John Prescott's "new deal" for London Underground. In a public show of unity, Tony Blair and the Secretary of State for Transport demanded a "world-class" service in return for the pounds 517m investment announced last week.

Mr Blair, who recently crossed swords with his deputy over public-service employees, told London Underground managers the Government would not continue to pour money into the network if they got "mediocrity" in return.

He has been told transport could be a central issue in the next election. However, the "additional investment" trumpeted by the Government will simply enable the network to continue with an existing programme of maintenance and improvements, managers acknowledged. Ministers had wanted to finalise a public-private partnership for the system by April but the deadline for the new ownership structure has been extended to April 2001, and the Government has been forced to plug the gap.

In his speech to Tube managers Mr Blair said: "We cannot sustain pouring in money and getting back mediocrity. We need a change of culture, we need enthusiasm and we need to embrace the culture of service." He announced a new government taskforce to ensure there were improvements.

By contrast, Mr Prescott said a "good service" had been provided despite a pounds 1.2bn investment backlog. But he accepted Mr Blair's strictures on the need for improvement following the debacle of the Circle Line, which had to close for engineering work.

Mr Prescott added: "We have provided the money; we are entitled to expect delivery." But observers believed it was unlikely the Government would rein back on investment if there was a perceived failure to enhance parts of the service.

Mr Blair and Mr Prescott walked from Downing Street to the conference at London Underground's St James's headquarters. Thousands of commuters were delayed on the busy Victoria Line as the men ambled through the park.

While accepting the Government's challenge, Sir Malcolm Bates, London Transport chairman, said independent research showed "passenger satisfaction" was up 15 per cent over the past five years.

Passengers have also endured disruption through the shutdown of part of the Northern Line and have suffered delays and overcrowding in stifling heat this summer.

The money provided by the Government will ensure work goes ahead on other lines such as the District and Victoria routes. Denis Tunnicliffe, London Transport's chief executive, said: "We've had the bad news, but we're in the good-news business from now on."