The safety signals on the Tube that can no longer be ignored

'Preparations for partial privatisation of the Tube confirmed the worst fears of millions of Londoners'
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The Independent Online

Last week's revelations of serious safety problems arising from London Underground's preparations for partial privatisation of the Tube confirmed my worst fears and those of millions of Londoners. Many of the public's problems with the Tube stem from two sources - chronic underinvestment over many years by central government and the inevitable tendency to ignore the views of its customers associated with a large-scale monopoly not subject to a clear line of public accountability.

Last week's revelations of serious safety problems arising from London Underground's preparations for partial privatisation of the Tube confirmed my worst fears and those of millions of Londoners. Many of the public's problems with the Tube stem from two sources - chronic underinvestment over many years by central government and the inevitable tendency to ignore the views of its customers associated with a large-scale monopoly not subject to a clear line of public accountability.

The return of democratic government to London should have started to remedy these problems by creating a powerful voice of London to lobby for adequate investment in public transport and, via the directly elected Mayor, subjecting the London Underground top management to the clear line of democratic accountability which most of them would welcome.

As is well known, the Government adopted a quite different course - one which will make the present problems of monopoly and accountability even worse by transferring key parts of the Tube to three private consortia whose primary line of accountability will inevitably be to their share-owners rather than the travelling public, most of whom have no viable alternative to the Underground. Moreover, in a grotesque mockery of the principles of devolution, the Government has ensured that while London's elected government will have no say in the drawing-up of the contracts privatising the Tube, Londoners' will be legally bound by them for the subsequent 30 years.

The arguments that this solution is likely to be far more expensive than a public sector solution to the need to increase investment in the Tube have been backed by research.

However, last week's leaks of letters from the Health and Safety Executive's Chief Inspector of Railways and London Underground Limited's own Chief Engineer revealing their grave concerns about about safety systems since "shadow running" to prepare for the "Public Private Partnership" (PPP) commenced, raised far more serious issues. These are the dangers; that the fragmentation of the system into four entities will undermine safety.

It is significant that such problems have emerged at this preparatory stage, even before control is handed to the three private monopolies created by PPP. But London Underground's response was astonishing. Instead of explaining what it was doing to meet the Health and Safety Executive's concerns, LU denounced what it called an "outbreak of alarmist scare-mongering".

The reality was, of course, quite different. The revelations were so worrying precisely because their sources were those responsible at the highest levels for the safety of the Tube. What had leaked into the public domain was not the opinion of politicians about the pros and cons of PPP, but the real results of starting to prepare for it as reported by impeccable sources charged with the safety of the public.

In a memorandum on fire safety compliance to the Transitional Chief Executives Committee dated 14 March this year, Keith Beattie, LUL's Chief Engineer warned: "Shadow running experience so far has highlighted a number of issues over the management of fire safety compliance..." These included: "The teams involved are subject to a confusing set of management arrangements because, although they operate as a single unit... in effect they have four masters." In a section entitled "Options for the Future", Beattie warned of the possible consequences of doing nothing: "This would leave unresolved a number of important issues and could lead to a deterioration in control over fire safety and compliance with relevant legislation. It is likely that LUL would find itself being prosecuted for failure to comply and, if matters rest for too long, there is a possibility that a significant fire could occur as a result of poor controls." It is almost impossible to imagine a more chilling warning.

Similarly, in the 7 August letter from Stanley Hart, the Health and Safety Executive's Principal Inspector of Railways, to LUL, it was made quite clear that the safety problems arose from preparation for PPP. Having pointed out that nine out of the 11 concerns listed in November 1999 remained outstanding, Hart warned: "The minor issues have been included because they aggregate to the more serious implication that there is a breakdown in local management control." He made clear: "...it ought to be a concern to LUL that HMRI has consistently expressed concern that it does not have full confidence in LUL systems since shadow running commenced, at a time when LUL is supposed to be proving the effectiveness of these systems. There are still too many areas where there is either no proof that the systems work or proof that they are not working."

An attachment to the letter listed a series of specific problems warning in some cases that the executive was considering prosecution. Indeed, London Underground Limited was prosecuted on safety grounds that week.

Reinforcing the point that his safety concerns resulted from preparations for PPP, Hart continued: "A further disquieting aspect since shadow running commenced has been the distancing of LUL from responsibility for network wide issues, where coordination from the central duty holder is essential." London Underground's response was not to meet legitimate public concern by explaining how it planned to rectify the problems revealed in the leaked letter. Instead, ignoring with breath-taking arrogance the specific and repeated references to problems arising from preparations for part-privatisation, LUL blankly asserted: "What is wrong is to suggest that these operational issues are in some way associated with PPP."

No evidence was provided to the public to back this claim and, after a meeting with LUL hastily arranged by the Government, the Health and Safety Executive was quoted as stating that at the present time LUL would not pass the safety case for partial privatisation. One newspaper quoted an Health and Safety Executive source as saying that if LUL was hoping to get its safety case for part-privatisation approved in current circumstances, it could "forget it".

In spite of LUL's obligation under the Greater London Authority Act to "consult and co-operate" with London's elected Mayor, I only learnt of the issues revealed in these documents from the media. That is totally unacceptable. The safety implications of PPP must be subject to the fullest public scrutiny - before London is bound by contract that will tie its hands for 30 years.

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