Tube Lines: final cost to be kept from voters until just after the election?

THE final verdict on how much taxpayers should pay Tube Lines for the next seven and a half years of the hugely-controversial public-private partnership could be delayed until after the general election, I can reveal.

The announcement was to have been made on 29 April, the week before the likely polling date and London borough election date of 6 May. The PPP arbiter now wants it to be put back by about two weeks to mid-May.

It’s a hugely important decision, with up to £1.75 billion at stake. That’s the difference between how much Tube Lines wants to charge for upgrading three Underground lines (£5.75 billion) and the amount that Transport for London wants to pay (£4 billion.)

In his initial determination published in December, the arbiter, Chris Bolt, came down closer to TfL than Tube Lines, at £4.4 billion – though even that has led to serious concern in TfL about where the extra £400 million is to come from. The Mayor, Boris Johnson, has called on the Government to provide but been told, essentially, to get lost.

The official reason for the proposed postponement, likely to be announced today, is the volume of representations received. But more than one observer suspects the hand of the Government here, too – not keen to have London voters reminded of one its most serious mistakes a few days before they go to the polls.

Could the postponement also be a hint of further bad news – that the final settlement will be less favourable to TfL, and more favourable to Tube Lines, than before? That’s an even more chilling prospect.

The delay is not yet set in stone, and the PPP arbiter should change his mind. The democratic interest is surely best served by the people of London knowing the true cost of the policies they are voting on, before they have a chance to vote. And if that means Mr Bolt working late a few nights, so be it. I wouldn’t begrudge him the overtime.

FirstGroup and Tube Lines: you simply will not believe this

IF this were a just society, the executives of FirstGroup would be paraded in chains on the concourse at St Pancras. Because it is modern Britain, however, they get to go to the Rail Business Awards.

And what a big night it was, down at the London Hilton! First was named Rail Business of the Year. First Great Western was awarded Train Operator of the Year. A man named Daniel Williams got Young Professional of the Year.

Daniel Williams is the customer service delivery manager for First Capital Connect, which has inflicted three months of misery on the people using its services. First Capital Connect’s customer service delivery is described as “substandard” and “a matter of acute concern” by no less a person than the Transport Secretary, Lord Adonis.

First Great Western is responsible for making more people stand in conditions of extreme discomfort than the Stasi.

And First Group is Britain’s worst company, an organisation which specialises in taking functioning transport services and reducing them to chaos. No wonder the award ceremony had to be hosted by a comedian, Phil Hammond.

If you want a good vomit, here’s a quote from the chairman of the judges, Steve Agg: “The judging panel were almost overwhelmed with the strength of the entries from FirstGroup this year. To have achieved such a high level of performance, across so many disciplines, makes them worthy winners of this award.”

The Rail Business Awards didn’t overlook other privatised transport disasters, either. Lee Jones, director of operations at Tube Lines, was named rail business manager of the year – the year that Tube Lines’ upgrade of the Jubilee Line turned into a fiasco and their relationship with their only customer, TfL, collapsed.

Of course, if the rail industry was obliged to recognise only true excellence, its award ceremonies would be pretty short. But does anyone on Planet Rail have even a shred of self-awareness? Do they have even an atom of humility? Can’t they understand how extraordinarily offensive it is to sit around in hotel ballrooms, drinking good wine at our expense (everything on the railways, one way or another, is at our expense) and handing out awards to the most discredited companies they can find?

The clue to these insufferable awards is in the second word of their title, not the first. First Group, Tube Lines and the rest may be atrocious railways. But they are brilliant businesses. They have worked out the optimum way of screwing the maximum cash out of taxpayers and farepayers while spending the absolute minimum they can possibly get away with on service and upgrades. One of the award judges is actually called Mr Profit.

So that is why the Rail Business Awards are, perversely, to be welcomed. At some point, as the public spending squeeze bites, the people in charge of spending our taxes must surely cotton on. And the more the robber barons of rail celebrate their own cleverness, the likelier it is that we, the victims, will rise up and demand their destruction.

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?

First Capital Connect and Tube Lines: the meltdown continues

It’s turning into a bad month for the private companies which pick our pockets and strangle our railways. Last week, the well-publicised travails of Britain’s worst company, First Group, led the Government to warn that it might strip them of their Thameslink (aka “First Capital Connect”) franchise.

After I wrote my weekly newspaper column about Last Group, my inbox filled up with tales of woe about Worst’s wretched train (and especially bus) services. I also highly recommend the amusing firstcrapitalconnect parody website (“This train has been cancelled. This is due to no decent management being available.”)

And I loved the First manager in the Herts Advertiser who admitted: “Many feel we are totally incompetent.” News on a par with the religion of the Pope and the sanitary habits of bears in woods – but nice to hear it from the horse’s mouth!

This morning, it’s the turn of Tube Lines, the sole remaining child of the disastrous PPP. TL has received a thorough kicking from an independent arbiter appointed to rule on its claim that the public purse should pay it yet more money for its incompetence in delaying the Jubilee Line upgrade. “Labyrinthine, artifical, and unconvincing,” he called Tube Lines’ case.

Here are some more quotes from the arbiter that didn’t make it into our report:

“In the 6 files of documents provided by Tube Lines on this subject … there is not one letter from Tube Lines that supports the complaints now made.”

“There is an air of unreality about the complaints Tube Lines now makes.”

“What [Tube Lines] now submits is markedly different from that which occurred
contemporaneously…Tube Lines’ case… appears to have been fashioned with the benefit of hindsight.”

Oh dear. Boris, as I’ve reported before, is quite rightly trying to get rid of Tube Lines. One-nil to him, I think.