Boris Johnson 'furious' as Tube Lines demands 65 weekend closures on Northern Line

Tube Lines, the controversial PPP contractor, has asked TfL for a total of 131 full days’ closure on the Northern Line, London’s busiest, in 2010/11, it can be revealed.

The shutdowns would begin next month. They include 21 weekend closures of the entire line, a further 14 weekend closures of the entire line north of Stockwell and 28 weekend closures of the line south of Kennington. On the remaining two weekends the line would be closed south of Tooting Broadway.

A Transport for London spokesman said: “The Mayor and TfL are pretty furious at this latest demand from Tube Lines.  We believe Tube Lines’ demand shows they have not learned from the delayed and hugely disruptive Jubilee line upgrade.

“The Mayor and TfL are calling on Tube Lines and its shareholders to think again and urgently review its Northern line programme.”

The demand comes in addition to today’s news that the line will close an hour early, at 11.30pm, on Mondays to Thursdays for18 months (reports of a total closure from 8.30pm are overhyped, but the train frequency will start to reduce after this time.)

The demand for weekend closures appears to contrast with a promise made to this morning’s FT by Tube Lines’ outgoing chief executive, Dean Finch, to avoid regular weekend closures of the Northern Line.

Finch will no doubt be questioned about the closure programme – and the apparent inconsistency – at tomorrow’s meeting of the London Assembly transport committee, and the TfL statement is clearly the latest shot in the growing battle between Boris and Tube Lines.

As I was first to reveal in the paper in December, and reported on this blog last month, Boris essentially wants rid of Tube Lines, whose claim to be the “success story” of the PPP was destroyed by its disastrous upgrade of the Jubilee Line, running up to a year late, causing endless weekend closures and with still no end in sight. The fear in TfL is that the same chaos is about to commence on the Northern.

It looks this week like Boris is gearing up for a major assault on Tube Lines – and its shareholders, Bechtel and Ferrovial (owner of another hated company, BAA). There is talk of letters to the Transport Secretary, Lord Adonis, articles for the Evening Standard, and a further strong mayoral attack at Wednesday’s TfL board meeting (interestingly the paper to be delivered on Tube Lines at that meeting is not yet available, unlike all the others, on the TfL website).

“Boris is more furious about the PPP the more he thinks about it, and is simply not prepared to be carried bound and drugged into responsibility for taking Tube Lines’ s–t for the next seven and a half years,” says one figure close to him.

Last month, Boris accused Tube Lines, undeniably correctly, of “looting” London taxpayers. Bechtel and Ferrovial made an equity investment of just £135 million (2 per cent of the total invested in the Tube Lines part of the PPP – the other £12.85 billion comes, in one form or another, from us).

In return, those shareholders have already collected “success payments,” dividends, inflated “secondment fees” and (in due course) straightforward profits totalling well north of £500 million. The public, meanwhile, has seen little more than a lot of new wall tiles at stations.

Even if Tube Lines had performed as promised, it would have delivered very modest improvements, at incredible cost to the taxpayer, over a very long period. But of course, on the Jubilee Line, it has failed even in that.

So this is a fight the Mayor deserves to win. But will he? So far the score is two-nil to Boris. Last month, an arbiter appointed to scrutinise claims made by Tube Lines comprehensively rejected its case.

The month before, there was a helpful determination from the main PPP arbiter, who ruled that the next seven years’ worth of upgrades should cost £4.4 billion (Tube Lines wanted £5.75 billion, TfL wanted to pay £4 billion.) But Tube Lines remains in possession of a contract deliberately drawn up to give it huge advantages.

The next battle will be how to plug that £400 million gap between what the arbiter says the upgrades should cost and what TfL wants to pay. Tube Lines – and, it appears, the Government – are saying that TfL should agree to scaling back the upgrades to even more modest levels than those already planned. TfL says Tube Lines should not scale back, but find the £400m itself, borrowing on the open market if necessary. London taxpayers and Tube users should not pay, will be their message.

The battle is far from over and there will be two key signs of whether Tube Lines has a future. The first is whether they appoint (or can get) somebody equally high-powered to replace Finch. The second is what, if anything, the national Tory party, and presumed next government, is prepared to say on the subject.

Interestingly, both the transport minister, Sadiq Khan (MP for Tooting) and his shadow, Theresa Villiers (MP for Chipping Barnet) will see their constituents cut off from the world by Tube Lines in this election year. There ought to be a few votes in promising to minimise the misery, surely?

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