Blame game as 'Misery Line' lives up to its name

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The Independent Online

While Tube managers initially insisted yesterday that the trains were safe, they later acquiesced in the shutdown, which disrupted the journeys of hundreds of thousands of passengers. At one stage the RMT union threatened industrial action if management disciplined drivers for refusing to work. The strike threat was subsequently lifted.

London Underground said it hoped to reinstate services gradually over the weekend. A spokesman said the earliest it would be back was tomorrow, but commuters who use the unreliable service may be sceptical that they will experience a "good" service so soon.

Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT, said he had been told that technicians from across the country were being drafted in to try to resolve the problem, which he believed could take weeks. One of the components in the braking system was being completely redesigned, he said.

He called for Tube maintenance work to be taken back in-house. Problems on the infamous Northern lineused to be relatively simple. There would be a routine but highly disruptive foul-up and enraged commuters would give London Underground a good dressing down.

Under the public-private partnership (PPP) imposed on the system by the Government, one thing has changed. Yesterday nothing moved on the line, but it was difficult to find an organisation to blame.

Drivers had refused to work following the failure of the emergency braking system on five trains. They said to operate the services would put passengers at risk.

Responsibility for maintaining trains ­ and the braking system ­ has been farmed out to the private sector. So in this case the Tube Lines consortium would be to blame, it seemed. But, in the particular case of the Northern line, responsibility for keeping the trains going is the subject of a private finance initiative involving the engineering company Alstom.

London Underground says Tube Lines is in charge of maintenance, but Tube Lines says Alstom has day-to-day responsibility. But Tube Lines points out that London Underground is responsible for passengers' safety, adding that the braking system was designed by the Underground.

The saga began on 9 September when a driver stopped at a red light. There was a signalling fault, so he was told to proceed slowly. As he passed the light, the emergency braking system should have activated. It did not. Drivers were ordered to test all trains by driving slowly through red signals. Three more failed to work.

Last Thursday London Underground ordered Alstom to check all trains on the route. But because of the checking process it was only able to supply half of the fleet last Friday. This Wednesday an emergency braking system on a fifth train failed. London Underground decided for the first time under the PPP regime to issue an "emergency direction notice", which allows Underground managers to direct and oversee Alstom's attempts to correct the problem.

Four drivers were reportedly sent home for refusing to drive the trains on safety grounds. On Wednesday more colleagues declined to take services out.

A London Underground spokesman said: "It is clear that maintenance of the Northern line train fleet was not being done to the correct standards."

The Liberal Democrats' Transport spokesman in the London Assembly, Geoff Pope, said: "It was the Chancellor who concocted this ludicrous PPP deal that has left Londoners with a system where the dangerous game of pass-the-problem- parcel has become routine."