Donald Macintyre: The voters expect their trains to run on time

'The Underground was once a source of London pride, but now it shames the country as a whole'
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The Independent Online

You could see the crushing disappointment in their faces. It was 9.35am in the Earl's Court Road. The young couple were down from the North on a Christmas treat they had long promised themselves. Their hopes of making the London Eye by 10am (on a brilliantly clear morning when the views would have been astounding) had ended a few minutes earlier with the news that their eastbound District line train to Westminster would not be moving now or for the foreseeable future. They were prepared to pay for a taxi they could ill afford. But of course there were none in sight. Stoically, and knowing they would never make it, they set out to walk.

Just another Monday morning on the Underground. They were not alone. Normally I travel to Westminster from Bayswater by bicycle. The journey takes 20 minutes at most. Unusually without my bike, I – idiotically – took the Tube yesterday instead of walking. The journey took an hour and 35 minutes. The first sign of trouble was on the short bus ride to the Tube station. Crackling over the driver's intercom was an all-points directive to accept Tube tickets from Northern line passengers unable to travel between Kennington to Camden Town. (London Underground explained later that this was because of an electrical current failure.)

Thanks to the Jubilee line, the journey from Queensway or Notting Hill Gate to Westminster is theoretically a fast and simple one. But almost since its opening it has been impossible to change from the Central line to the Jubilee line at Bond Street because demand for the interchange is so high that the station doesn't have the capacity to handle it between 8 and 10am. Which left the Circle line, lumberingly slow at the best of times. Except that yesterday it had been "suspended" because of a security alert at Monument and a signal failure at Mansion House. (It is a fair bet that the latter was the more disruptive since the former should only have prevented trains stopping at Monument.)

The answer was to take the District line to Earls Court and change on to the eastbound District line. Except between High Street Kensington and Earl's Court, the driver announced that eastbound trains were now backing up because of "detraining" at Mansion House, scene of the signal failure. His advice: stop off for a relaxing cup of coffee or take the Piccadilly line. Except, as he and I had forgotten, the Piccadilly line isn't stopping at Earl's Court just now because of work on the escalators. New answer: walk to South Kensington, take the Piccadilly line to Green Park, wait for a mysterious 10 minutes on the Jubilee line platform, and then, finally, take the train to Westminster.

Such a tiny thing, of course. When people are dying from bombs, bullets and starvation in Afghanistan (not to mention the utterly terrifying beating and stoning of the Independent's Robert Fisk by enraged and desperate refugees); when another – still stricken – Western metropolis will today recollect the unimaginable horrors that afflicted it exactly three months ago; it seems positively obscene to complain about something so mundane as the state of the Underground on a sunny Monday morning in London. And of course that's true. It is a huge first world indulgence to worry about a slowly collapsing transport infrastructure in a city still as safe and peaceful and rich as this.

The problem for British ministers, however, is that it is an indulgence to which growing numbers of those that elected them are prone. And the excuses are fast running out. It's almost certainly true that, as with other public services, the price is still being paid for nearly two pre-Labour decades of chronic under-investment in transport. But mundanely or not, having voted in this Government more than five years ago to fix just that, they are still waiting. They are no longer prepared to blame the Tories. September 11 changed a great deal – the brutal electoral fact is that it didn't change that.

So the palpably decaying Tube is no more than a symbol of the need for public service delivery. But quite a powerful one. We should be impatient of arguments that this is just a London issue. It's not only that our friends from the North try to use it too. It's also that what from the 1930s to the 1970s was a source of London pride now shames the country as a whole, as anyone who has used a subway from Montreal to Athens knows only too well. Since more journeys are taken on the London Underground than on trains throughout the rest of the country, it is the very epicentre of the national public transport crisis. It, and the closely related problem of traffic congestion on the capital's streets, is a negative factor in inward investment decisions, in productivity in what still – just – is, and certainly should be, Europe's leading financial centre, and in tourism.

So it matters very much that the Government's preferred – but highly contested – option of a private-public partnership (contracts for which should have been signed yesterday) for rescuing the Tube is about to drag it into a further period of uncertainty. A great deal now depends on an imminent cost benefit report by the accountants PricewaterhouseCoopers, comparing the latest versions of the three private-sector track proposals with their public-sector equivalents. It's quite possible that it will support PPP for all three; it's equally possible that it will point to PPP for two and wholly public control for the third. In which case there will be further agonised debate within Whitehall about whether to opt for a hybrid system and risk Ken Livingstone, the London Mayor, banking the concession and campaigning, ahead of the 2004 London elections, for the whole government strategy to be reversed.

I suspect the silently resentful passengers I saw yesterday no longer care if the incredible delays so far to Tube modernisation are the product of a stalemate between two of the cleverest but also most stubborn men in British politics – the Mayor and Gordon Brown, who with the strong support of John Prescott, has never flinched from backing PPP. Or whether, as is rumoured, an earlier internal study found that there was nothing much to choose between PPP and the much greater degree of public-sector control advocated by Ken Livingstone and Bob Kiley, the man Mr Livingstone hired to run the Underground. Or whether, if that's true, it wouldn't have been better for democracy to give the Mayor a chance to do it his way. Or which option is now chosen.

But they will care very much if another political wrangle is allowed to cause further delays still. There is quite a good case for saying that on education and now – albeit messily – on health, the Government knows where it is going. But transport remains the blackest of black holes. This a stable country and people will put up with the kind of disruption that has become all too routine if – and only if – they know it is in the cause of actually improving the service.

But time is running out. If the disruption is simply accompanying further deterioration, the Government will find to its direct cost that in modern democracies, as well as in dictatorships, the public expect the trains to run on time.