The day the Tube died

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LAST week's Tube fiasco could not have happened at a better time for London Transport. A week before the combined Budget and spending plans announcement, part of the system succumbs to old age. Thousands are trapped in tunnels, patch-repairs prove inadequate, which means a third of the Central Line closes for at least five days, and the management suggests that the problems are the results of years of accumulated under-investment in a decaying system.

For Transport ministers, on the other hand, the timing was unlucky. Last year, they allowed the money allocated for LT investment to be cut from pounds 850m to pounds 550m to protect the roads programme, provoking the chairman of LT, Sir Wilfrid Newton, into apoplectic rage and delaying a number of key Tube projects. Last week's events seem to have ensured that Transport ministers will not make the same mistake again, though the allocation for investment will still fall well short of the pounds 750m that LT needs each year to create what it calls 'a decently modern metro'.

Last year's cut was too late to prevent progress on the pounds 750m Central Line refurbishment, but a 30-year period of under-investment means that the installation of new cabling, including the section that failed, will only be completed next year when, according to Brian Mellitt, London Underground's director of engineering, it should have been done at least 15 years ago.

Yesterday, engineers were still trying to trace the source of the fault which first caused the system to break down on Tuesday. Trains on part of the Central, District, and Hammersmith & City lines stopped after power failed but resumed an hour later when an alternative power source was used. The trains worked for the rest of the day, but next morning a large part of the network failed at 7.10am, was restored 20 minutes later, but failed again at 8am, leaving 20,000 commuters trapped underground in 29 trains on five lines for up to four hours.

Power was restored on all the services except the eastern part of the Central Line, from Liverpool Street to Epping, by early afternoon. Ian Arthurton, the Tube's passenger services director, hoping to get people home in the rush hour, then decided to run trains on the Central Line from 4.15pm, but power failed after an hour, leaving 287 people stranded in six trains, fortunately above ground. Mr Arthurton admitted later that it was a mistake to restart the service.

It had already been a hairy fortnight for the Central Line and its passengers. There was the threat of a walk-out by staff over alleged scapegoating of a union official and a train derailed at Loughton. The problem which on Friday 19 November led to speed restrictions of 15 mph on part of the line was caused by new trains - introduced as part of the refurbishment programme - wearing down the rails in a different way: 1,100 metres of track had to be replaced.

After Wednesday's breakdown it was initially thought the fault had been traced to a low- voltage cable near Newbury Park station on the Hainault loop. This was mistaken, and the past three days have been spent trying to find the fault. Experts from Britain's three largest cable manufacturers have been called in and faxes sent as far afield as Sydney and Tokyo to other metro operators to ask whether they have ever experienced anything similar. Infra-red detection equipment is also being used and the Blackwall Tunnel was partially shut to allow inspection of the cable which comes under the river from Greenwich.

Despite the use of 80 special buses, much of London's traffic became virtually gridlocked for the rest of the week, as commuters turned to their cars, proving that the Tube does not only benefit its users.

The Tube system gets half its power from its own generator at Lots Road in Chelsea and a booster generator at Greenwich, used in the rush hours. The rest comes from the National Grid. The Central Line is fed from London Underground's own generators. The 500 kilometres of 22,000-volt cable consists of three large copper cables, packed with protective paper and enclosed in a lead cover around 6in in diameter, so heavy and stiff that it cannot be laid from a cable wheel but instead is supplied in straight pieces. This necessitates frequent joints and it is one of these which is probably shorting out to earth intermittently.

The system is designed to trip when a short occurs, much like a domestic circuit-breaker, and it is supposed to blow at the nearest point, making it easy to detect. However, this particular fault not only trips much of the system, making it difficult to locate, but also appears to repair itself when it cools down, making it untraceable.

It is the intermittent nature of the fault that has baffled Mr Mellitt's team. The fault also only occurs after the system has operated for a while and is under pressure. Moreover, on this section of the line, where some of the cable is 54 years old, much of the resetting is done manually which means, as Mr Mellitt puts it, 'men-on-bicycles time'.

Mr Mellitt has no doubt where the blame lies: 'You cannot expect this cable to operate without problems. It reached the end of its working life 15 years ago and should have been replaced.'

Tube managers reckon there has been underinvestment of the system by pounds 75m- pounds 100m annually for the past 30 years, by which they mean that the level of investment has fallen short of what is needed to keep the system operating at the same standard.

London's commuters are used to seeing dirt and decay in the 'non-moving' parts of the system. Dennis Tunnicliffe, the managing director of London Underground, has consistently said it is the unseen parts of the system, like drainage and track infrastructure, where investment is most lacking.

Last week's failure of a large part of the Central Line was unprecedented, the first time that the under-investment directly led to a lengthy withdrawal of service, apart from the King's Cross disaster in 1987. And according to LT insiders, it will not be the last. The pounds 900m refurbishment of the Northern Line, which should have been the next line to benefit from the investment programme, has been postponed indefinitely.

The breakdown was utterly predictable. Douglas McWilliams, author of a report on investment on the Tube, says that during his research earlier this year he sought the views of those in charge of parts of the infrastructure. The message came over loud and clear from the people responsible for the power supply. 'They warned me that there was a very high probability of a major breakdown which was likely to cause disruption. They were right.'

Mr McWilliams says that pounds 300m a year investment is needed just to keep the Tube system functioning. This year, it received about pounds 550m from the Government and was able to supplement this with around pounds 130m from its own funds, essentially because its fares are much higher than on comparable systems in other countries.

This is still nowhere near the level of pounds 900m a year that Mr McWilliams argues would, over 10 years, so transform the LT system that it would more than pay for itself in other benefits - for example, expanding the capital's available workforce because more people would be willing to travel longer distances.

While John MacGregor, the Secretary of State for Transport, has listened carefully to Mr McWilliams's arguments, he always says he is constrained by the Treasury. It need not be like that. In other countries, funding for public transport is raised by a variety of taxes. The Metro in Paris is subsidised by a payroll tax on employers; in the Netherlands, revenue from natural-gas sales is being mooted as a source of funds for rail projects; and in Germany, a tax on motor vehicles helps fund public transport.

In Britain, there are just gimmicks. Under the Passenger's Charter, Tube users can claim a refund if their journey is delayed by 20 minutes or more. On Friday week, that period will be reduced to 15 minutes. But few commuters bother to claim the tiny sums of money involved.

Commuters want, as Mr McWilliams emphasises, a reliable and comfortable journey. At the moment, many aren't even getting a journey at all.

Leading article, page 20

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