Crashes and near misses could derail the privatised Tube

Last weekend's accident on the Underground injured seven. But it may also have sounded the death knell for the private funding of a service already crippled by age and underfunding

You could hardly imagine a less prepossessing gateway to London's fourth most popular tourist attraction. The 100,000 visitors each weekend who head for Camden Lock market have first to negotiate the scruffy labyrinth of Camden Town Tube station, with its dingy platforms, frequently broken escalators and recumbent winos and dope dealers who block the exits.

The station is so dangerously crowded at weekends that the entrance gates have to be shut to ease pressure on the platforms.

But below ground, in the areas that passengers cannot see, things are even worse. Just to the south of the platforms is a busy four-way intersection that funnels trains from the two northern branches from High Barnet and Edgware on to the two southern branches, via Bank and Charing Cross. Drivers, The Independent on Sunday can reveal, had complained at least six times in the past two months about a strange bump when passing through it.

Last Sunday, as the 10.22 northbound train, carrying bleary-eyed tourists hoping for an early bargain at Camden Lock, passed over the points, something in the track failed, pitching the train into the tunnel wall, injuring seven people and provoking a panic across the capital about whether the newly privatised Tube is safe. Only two days earlier another train had come off the track at Hammersmith. This followed an incident in January when a Central Line train derailed at Chancery Lane, injuring 32 people.

It was lucky, paradoxically, that there were only 70 people on board last Sunday. Had the accident happened four hours later, when the train was packed with shoppers, a serious accident would have turned into a major disaster. Drivers face the sack if they talk to the press, but one said this weekend: "It's lucky nobody was killed. There is a 20mph limit coming into the station, but drivers have been going slower than that for some time."

Inquiries are also focusing on overnight work on the track by a gang of 20 workmen employed by Tube Lines, the Northern Line's new private operator. Tube Lines is partly owned by Jarvis, the maintenance firm responsible for the track which caused the Potters Bar disaster. Insiders point to a recent pattern of accidents following overnight maintenance. Last month a Kings Cross to Glasgow express derailed outside Kings Cross after overnight trackwork by Jarvis in a repeat of an incident last year, in which a coal train was derailed near Rotherham after Jarvis engineers cleared the line for use, even though a section of track was missing.

It is too early to say whether the Tube PPP was itself responsible for last weekend's two accidents. But Jarvis has since withdrawn from maintenance on the main line railway, and last week Network Rail announced it was to end all its maintenance contracts with private firms.

To do the same thing with the Tube would be more difficult because it has been privatised in a complex way which is unique in the world. Under a 30-year deal, which came into effect this year, two consortia, owned mostly by civil engineering firms, have taken over responsibility for the track, the stations, the trains and the signalling, with an obligation to spend billions on refurbishment.

The Tube Lines consortium, owned by Amey, Bechtel and Jarvis, runs the Jubilee, Northern and Piccadilly lines, and will spend £4.4bn over the next seven and a half years. Metronet, owned by Balfour Beatty, WS Atkins, Bombardier, Thames Water and EdF Energy, runs the remaining nine lines, and will spend £7bn over the same period.

The only responsibilities retained in the public sector are driving the trains and staffing the stations. In theory, Mayor Ken Livingstone is in charge of the whole system, but in practice he is largely impotent.

Even so, events of the past week have given the PPP a knock. There is now a real sense of concern among the contractors that the whole thing could go pear-shaped. A source close to one of the firms told The Independent on Sunday: "I don't think lots of money will be lost immediately, but as we begin to have to make major improvements in order to fulfil the terms of the contract, in the next three or four years, things will get harder and harder and the contractors may get into difficulties."

The decision of Network Rail to take back all its day-to-day maintenance has added considerable fuel to Mr Livingstone's campaign to get rid of the PPP.

He said: "If it turns out that the derailments and other disruption to the Tube over the last week are the result of companies like Bechtel, Jarvis, Amey and Balfour Beatty failing to honour their lucrative contracts to maintain the Underground in a state of good repair, Londoners will want to see a similar resolution of the situation on the London Underground."

The RMT union is this week balloting its members for a strike to get the PPP reversed. The problem is that it is enshrined in primary legislation and will be very difficult to rescind without massive amounts of compensation for the contractors.

The contracts are unique in that they are performance based. This means that instead of getting a fixed amount for work carried out, the "infracos", as the companies are known, get more or less money depending on their ability to reduce delays. Broadly, the infracos have to pay £6 for every hour for which passengers are delayed, and this is calculated for each incident, such as a signalling failure or a breakdown. The current closure of Camden Town will have cost Tube Lines several million pounds.

And this is the heart of the controversy. Opponents of the scheme were concerned that safety would be compromised because the infracos would be tempted to cut corners in order to reduce delays. This was a contributory cause of the Hatfield train crash which killed four people in October 2000, where a cracked rail was left unrepaired and no emergency speed restriction was imposed, for reasons that have still not been explained.

Underground managers also point privately to a deterioration in the culture within the organisation which has resulted from greater use of contractors. One manager told the IoS: "It used to take 18 weeks to train the guys who do the low-voltage cables. Now we get people from agencies who can't read a wiring diagram."

London Underground used to be staffed mainly by people who stayed in the organisation for much of their careers. Now, each contractor has to have a safety case approved by the Health and Safety Executive and this is an extremely bureaucratic process which generates acres of paper. Another manager told the IoS: "If I had to read every document that came past my desk, I would not be able to carry out my job. So I just tick the boxes."

London Underground is in exactly the same sort of flux as the main line railway was in the immediate aftermath of privatisation, but it has experienced its first crisis much sooner.

One insider said last night: "Hatfield wasn't the biggest accident of recent years, but it was enough to tip the railways into a corporate nervous breakdown. The accidents of last week could do the same with the Tube."

Christian Wolmar is author of 'Down the Tube: The Battle for London's Underground' (Aurum Press, £9.99)

WHY THE AILING LINES FACE AN UPHILL TASK

Up to now, London Underground has had one of the best safety systems of any of the world's older metro systems, with only one fatal accident for every 300 million journeys. But London is paying the price for having developed the first and biggest underground system. Much of the system is Victorian or Edwardian, and is rotting after decades of under-investment.

These statistics show just how huge the task is for the new private operators:

Bakerloo

Run by Metronet: 84,000 passengers daily

Reliability: 351 delays a year (of more than 15 minutes)

Worst problem: Elderly trains, worn-out track

Central

Run by Metronet: 171,000 passengers daily

Reliability: 286 delays a year

Worst problem: Motors dropping off trains caused line to shut for three months; signalling problems

Circle

Run by Metronet: 61,000 passengers daily

Reliability: 286 delays a year

Worst problem: Long waits between trains due to high level of shared tracks and junctions

District

Run by Metronet: 177,000 passengers daily

Reliability: 572 delays a year

Worst problem: 40-year-old control room; elderly junctions and signalling

East London

Run by Metronet: 10,000 passengers daily

Reliability: 104 delays a year

Worst problem: Unsuitable and elderly trains

Hammersmith & City

Run by Metronet: 46,000 passengers daily

Reliability: Treated as part of the Circle line

Worst problem: Ageing track; small, elderly trains

Jubilee

Run by Tube Lines: 124,000 passengers daily

Reliability: 247 delays a year

Worst problem: Not enough rolling stock;new computer signalling system fails regularly

Metropolitan

Run by Metronet: 69,000 passengers daily

Reliability: 559 delays a year

Worst problem: Old, unsuitable trains, ancient signalling

Northern

Run by Tube Lines: 201,000 passengers daily

Reliability: 247 delays a year

Worst problem: Clapped-out track

Piccadilly

Run by Tube Lines: 134,000 passengers daily

Reliability: 390 delays a year

Worst problem: Tube's most overcrowded line

Victoria

Run by Metronet: 150,000 passengers daily

Reliability: 143 delays a year

Worst problem: Stations often close due to overcrowding

Waterloo and City

Run by Metronet: 18,000 passengers daily

Reliability: 78 delays a year

Worst problem: Same as Central Line trains

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