City grapples with `disgrace' at the Bank Below-stairs mess shows legacy of neglect

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The Independent Online
ABOVE, in buildings of opulence, is the great money-making machine of the City of London. But step down a flight of steps set into a corner of the Bank of England and you pass from the First World to the Third World, from the Nineties to a scene s traight from the Blitz. Bank underground station, the public transport hub of the world's leading financial centre, is a mess.

Bare breeze-blocks, exposed wires and broken tiling, plywood, dirt and darkness: it resembles a subterranean building site abandoned long ago. Its few clean and modern corners serve to emphasise the bomb-damaged character of the rest.

London Underground admits that Bank station is "not a good advertisement for the City". Tony Travers, a transport expert at the London School of Economics, puts it more simply: "It is a disgrace to a financial centre."

For 30 years Bank was, like much of the Tube, neglected. In the Eighties, commuters suffered wearisome disruption caused by the construction of a Docklands Light Railway station. Now it is caught up in budget shortfalls and its £60m refurbishment programme is being spread over five years.

Just as the Bank of England above it symbolises financial security, the station below represents the problems of the whole Tube system. Delayed refurbishments and cost-cutting have served to exacerbate the problems. London Underground would like to spend£900m a year for 10 years on building a "decently modern metro'' for the capital.

For the Corporation of London, the ancient body that runs the City, 10 years could well be too long to wait, as it faces tough competition to maintain the Square Mile's standing as the leading European financial centre. "Paris and Frankfurt have investedheavily in public transport in recent years," complains Michael Cassidy, the Corporation's head of planning, "but here we see a constant frustration of transport ideas."

With 91 per cent of City workers commuting by train, the problems are pressing, and last week the Corporation proposed adding a special transport levy to business rates as an innovative way of financing expensive infrastructure projects. Businesses wouldhave to be balloted for their approval and the cash would then be paid to a trust run by Corporation, government and business representatives.

London Underground itself announced the first big deal to bring private funding to the Tube on Thursday, when it signed a £400m contract with GEC-Alsthom. The Birmingham company will be paid - on performance-related rates - to supply and provide trains on a daily basis for the troubled Northern Line (one of those which pass through Bank). London Underground will concentrate on operating the trains and drawing up timetables.

The object of both the City's trust and the GEC-Alsthom deal is a matter of accounting. Any money derived from the private sector for public sector projects such as transport improvements does not figure in the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement (PSBR),and therefore does not threaten Budget or money-supply targets.

They are both roundabout ways of paying the bills for improvements that every commuter and tourist would agree are urgently required. But, as Tony Travers points out, it is not only the Government which can be difficult about spending more money. The easiest way to pay for rebuilding run-down stations is to raise ticket prices. Nobody at all is voting for that.