Under the hammer or back on the rails?

Tory plans to privatise the Tube will bring no relief to its suffering customers. But there is another route, and it's been travelled before

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Harry Beck's famous and much-copied map of the London Underground has always been more than an aid to getting around the world's oldest and one of its largest and complicated metro systems. First sketched in 1931 the Underground map is a brilliant diagrammatic pact between Londoners and visitors to London and the city itself. It describes a city that appears to be rational, logical, compact and easy to understand. It offers order out of chaos, and depicts the Underground network as the guiding intelligence or arterial system of the capital.

The map was mass-produced from January 1933; the new London Passenger Transport Board, the public corporation charged with running London's buses, trams and tube trains, came into being six months later. From then on, a miasma of competing road transport companies and the private Underground lines would become one integrated public service under the aegis of two giants of modern urban transport: Lord Ashfield and Frank Pick. A single- deck bus chugging through remotest Hertfordshire or a steam train puffing along the Brill branch of the former Metropolitan Railway were now painted in standard modern liveries and bore the legend "London Transport". London's transport network was no longer a plaything for rival entrepreneurs but a public service with a long-term strategy and considerable modernising work to do.

London Transport came into being as a result of a political desire to create an efficient integrated public transport system. It would rationalise investment and improve services and an infrastructure that, like the mainline railways, had been depleted and exhausted during the First World War and had never quite recovered.

By common consent the new corporation did its job superbly, creating the world's finest urban transport system. Smart new diesel buses, trolley- buses and Tube trains were matched by sophisticated modern architecture and design. In an obituary of Frank Pick that appeared in the Architectural Review in 1942, Nikolaus Pevsner described the LPTB's late chief executive as "the ideal patron of our age", and paid homage to the "civilised urbanity and humane common sense" that had inspired London Transport in the Thirties.

Sixty years on, a passenger (or "customer") on the Northern Line is unlikely to know who Lord Ashfield and Frank Pick were and is most unlikely to feel that the shabby trains and dismal journeys are the legacy of some act of enlightened public patronage. The fact that the Underground is in a mess, however, has little to do with the question of ownership and much to do with the way governments have treated it since it was nationalised in 1948 and subsequently handed from public body to public body with little apparent concern for its future. The Underground has been a political and commercial shuttlecock, its managers never allowed to plan for the long term. Some of the new lines and works envisaged in the Thirties have yet to be commissioned. There is still no Chelsea-Hackney line, while many trains and stations are increasingly old and rickety.

There is no reason why a public company cannot - if permitted to raise money from banks and to bid for funds from central or local government - run an efficient Underground. In fact, the efficiency of the network depends to a great extent on it being just that - a network of integrated lines. London Transport ran at its best when not just the Tube lines but the buses, too, were part of one single enterprise working together for the common good of the city they served. The best modern urban transport systems - as, for example, in Amsterdam - still work this way.

Privatising the Underground smacks more of political dogma than of common sense. Why break up a system that was brought together because private enterprise was unable to develop it along efficient modern lines? And if privatisation simply means the creation of a private transport monopoly, what would be the point?

Perhaps we will see a restoration of the Pullman trains on the new Metropolitan Railway, with City folk tucking into kedgeree and kippers on the morning run from Amersham to Liverpool Street (these ran until October 1939). Or a trolley refreshment service might be introduced on the Central London Railway as it rumbles between Ealing Broadway and Epping. And of course there will be the voices of "senior conductors" thanking us for "choosing" to travel on the Bakerloo Railway from Elephant & Castle to Edgware Road, even though the only alternatives were a bus caught in a traffic jam, an expensive taxi or a long walk.

Although there is no good reason to privatise the Underground, the private sector might well jump at the chance of owning it. Why? For the simple reason that the Underground is a major landowner with assets said be worth pounds 13bn. Property companies would surely race to build a superstore over Neasden Depot, or to promise a smart new station "facility" at Ruislip or Hainault paid for by a massive new residential development. These could be hugely profitable and help to fund a new generation of sponsored or branded trains on the Underground, each fitted out with video screens featuring non-stop advertising. Given the fact that private companies are likely to be subsidised by central government for running trains on the far reaches of the former Northern and Central lines, there is every incentive for private companies to take what public money they can get while making a killing from property deals.

Private enterprise may well be able to make the Underground run in one form or the other. Do not, however, expect it to be the "civilising agent" it was in its heyday. Anyway, as very few readers and travellers can remember those days, why let what can easily be dismissed as nostalgia get in the way of privatisation? After all, we have got used to other utilities and services being run by the private sector. Asking people to worry about the fact that they now travel on badly designed buses in London can be characterised as effete and a waste of energy. We want cheap, reliable transport, no matter how it appears; and we want it now.

If the Underground is to stay in public hands, what ought to be done? It is clear that it is in poor shape. The answer might be to reconstitute London Transport as a public corporation, as it was in 1933. A board of directors would agree financial and performance targets with London authorities and the Treasury, but would be free to invest as its members saw fit. It could be subsidised locally by a tax on London companies whose staff rely on it, or nationally by the Treasury on a long-term basis that would protect it from the financial see-saw of the Chancellor's annual budget.

Harry Beck's famous map defined an integrated public transport that remains a model of its kind. Rather than rush into privatisation, the next government would be wise to give a public sector London Underground the autonomy it needs to make the trains run on time. And even look good, too.

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