Boris Johnson: 'get a grip' on transport

The Transport Secretary, Philip Hammond, takes what looks like a swipe at Boris Johnson in today’s Sunday Times. “The level of roadworks in London is completely out of control,” he says. “I don’t think anyone could describe driving in London as a pleasure.”

In the last ten days, amid the snow meltdown in transport and the wretched pre-snow performance of the Tube, even Ken Livingstone has been unable to miss the open goal. He has achieved an historic first, an attack line against Boris that might actually have some traction – “Get a grip.”

Eighteen months before the election Boris is, I think, more or less where he wants to be on most of his issues. After his sacking of Ian Blair, the Met has ceased to be a running sore, and crime is still falling. There are signs, at least for the moment, that the London economy is heading in the right direction, and perhaps more quickly than the rest of the country. Ken’s great hope, government spending cuts, will probably affect London less badly than anywhere else, because its economy is less dependent on the public sector – and Ken has messed up his attack on the cuts anyway.

But transport, the mayor’s biggest issue of all, is the great exception and headache. In the long term, with Crossrail happening, things look all right. But in the run-up to the election, Hammond’s salvo is the latest reminder that Boris hasn’t really “got a grip” on Transport for London, the bloated giant (complete with 231 managers on six-figure salaries) which he inherited from Livingstone.

TfL simply hasn’t adjusted to the new, post-crash world. Its costs are still ridiculous, limiting the mayor’s scope to do new things. How did it manage to spend £23 million on the first two cycle superhighways – which amount to little more than blue paint on a road? In Barking, it has spent £26 million on changing the number of one existing bus route (the 369, which has now become the “East London Transit”) and extending it a mile to the east through an almost totally deserted industrial wasteland in which it virtually never picks up a passenger.

These two projects alone cost about a quarter of the money raised by this year’s fare increase.

Transport is the area where the fewest of Boris’s manifesto promises have been kept. He promised to “make traffic flow more smoothly” and “rephase traffic lights” in order to “cut congestion.” But TfL’s policy is now merely to “review” traffic light timings, slowly, and few of the absurd numbers of traffic lights installed under Ken seem to have been significantly re-phased, or removed. On one road near me, there are 11 sets of lights in less than a mile, controlling even junctions with minor side streets and including several pelican crossings which turn red throughout the day and night even when no pedestrian is near.

The object, no doubt, was to further Ken’s war on the hated motorist – still fervently endorsed inside “Transport for Livingstone” – but bus passengers and cyclists are just as badly affected.

TfL has frustrated Boris’s promise to “promote greater use of the river.” It has quietly removed the high-frequency Thames Clipper commuter service from its new river timetable booklet, given out on piers and at stations and information centres, and now only includes the tourist boats. The only timetable information it now gives for the commuter service is an almost incomprehensible summary sheet, downloadable from its website.

TfL hates things it does not directly control and has been consistently hostile to Thames Clippers, despite the entire service consuming only a twentieth of the subsidy given to one single bus route (the East London Transit above.) Far from being “promoted,” the service is now less than when Boris took office.

TfL has simply refused to reinstate tidal flow in the Blackwall Tunnel, another manifesto promise, and has watered down the mayor’s new Routemaster. Pledges to extend the Tube for an hour on Friday and Saturday nights, and to work for a no-strike agreement, also appear to have been quietly shelved.

But most important, of course, is the Underground’s poor day-to-day service. TfL cannot be blamed for the recent wave of industrial action – which strikes more than one observer as a fairly cack-handed attempt to help Ken’s re-election campaign- and on which the public broadly backs the Mayor anyway. But it can be blamed for the recent serious disruption to the Tube on non-strike days, and the ongoing, endless weekend closures, which never seem to make the slightest difference to the service. My old paper, the Standard, splashed with “Come back Boris and take charge” the other day.

I know Boris is worried about all this. He had a furious row with Peter Hendy, TfL’s boss, recently. Hendy is, of course, the man who plotted with Livingstone’s chief of staff during the 2008 election campaign to “refute Boris’s transport ideas.” The buck stops, however, not with Hendy but with the Mayor. Boris needs a TfL which is working for London, not for itself or for Ken Livingstone.

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