Bob Crow's 'mental anguish' goes on as Boris won't back down

Earlier this week I broke the news of Bob Crow’s beyond-parody legal threat against Boris Johnson. The RMT’s Mr Tough pleaded, through his lawyers, that it was “offensive,” “malicious” and “defamatory” of Boris to associate him with Ken Livingstone, saying he had suffered “distress” and “mental anguish” as a result.

If the mayor did not make an immediate public apology, Mr Crow’s lawyers threatened, he would instantly shut down the Northern Line be very unhappy. Now Mr Crow’s “distress” and “mental anguish” are of course among this blog’s foremost concerns – we want him to suffer as much of both as possible – so I am delighted that Team Boris has not only refused to withdraw its ghastly insult, but has set up a special website to rub it in.

Here it is – Say No To Crow. Read Boris’s lawyers’ “kindly-get-lost” reply!  Thrill to the clip of Bob describing Ken as “a good bloke” from whom he has “never been apart” and offering: “Give us a shout, Ken, if you want some money!” Enjoy the rough justice of the bully himself being mocked and bullied! And look forward to the even more delightful prospect of Boris, if re-elected, keeping his manifesto promise to curb Crow’s grasping union. Yes, there will still be RMT train attendants on the Tubes when they go driverless. But they’ll be much easier to replace than drivers if they go on strike for free gold jewellery, unlimited supplies of ice-cream and early retirement at 40.

I’m not anti-union – I’m a member of one myself. They are vital to protect workers and stop them being victimised. TfL staff deserve fair pay and conditions. But on the Tube, it is the unions which have turned into the victimisers. Their greed has helped to price thousands of much less well-paid Londoners off the Underground altogether.

Most thinking trade unionists know that the likes of Crow discredit the labour movement, are trying the public’s patience, and need to be reined in. Even the union’s own members now seem increasingly disinclined to follow their militant leadership. This is one case where Boris will be doing almost everyone a favour.

Happy Christmas Aslef, says Ken Livingstone

There was a fascinating vignette on Ken and David Mellor’s LBC show on Saturday. Mick Whelan, the general secretary of the rail union Aslef, worked on a weekend to put the case for his downtrodden Tube drivers (they are, you’ll remember, striking on Boxing Day and three other days for triple time and extra holiday in lieu, even though they already get £45,000 and seven weeks’ holiday a year.)

Boxing Day is, of course, one of the key shopping days of the whole calendar – a day which London’s struggling retailers badly need to be a success. Gently probed by Mellor on whether it was fair for Aslef’s handsomely-rewarded members, in their totally secure jobs, to jeopardise the employment of much less well-paid shopworkers, Whelan came out with some classic phrases which deserve a wider audience.

“We see ourselves as stakeholders in London, we always have,” he said. “Most of your days off aren’t yours because of the strictures around alcohol and whatever.” You’d actually have to get utterly plastered on your last day off to fall foul of TfL’s alcohol policy – and I’m intrigued at the Aslef view that no leisure can be considered complete without large amounts of alcohol…or “whatever.”

“People don’t just give you your salary for nothing,” went on Whelan. Being a Tube driver was “one of the hardest, most responsible roles in transport.” By now, listeners across London were openly weeping at the sheer pathos of the drivers’ plight. Or perhaps they were just tears of laughter?

Second only to head of compliments at Virgin Trains, being a Tube driver is in fact the easiest job in transport. Unlike almost every other kind of transport employee, you almost never have to deal with the public. You never have to drive in traffic. You spend your whole time sitting down. The service pattern, with all the trains travelling at roughly the same speed along the same few routes, is nothing like as complicated as a surface railway. The system is substantially enclosed. You don’t even, on an increasing number of Tube lines, actually have to drive the train: it drives itself. All you do is sit in your chair and press a button to open and close the doors. A machine could do it – and in many cities, it does.

Ken, of course, wasn’t about to point this out. As the London Tory MP Jane Ellison, co-chair of the parliamentary retail group, noted today, Labour has taken £35,000 in donations from Aslef already this year, much of it for Ken’s campaign, and Ken personally has had nearly £40k from the union over the years. Ken ended the Whelan interview with a cheery message to his paymasters: “I suspect I’m not speaking for the unanimity of all Londoners,” he chortled. “But do have a good Christmas.”

I somehow think they will, Ken. Now how about getting round to the rest of us?

Boris Johnson: Tube, bus and Travelcard fares will go up by less

TfL value-for-money in action

As was reported yesterday, the Chancellor, George Osborne, will this week announce extra grants from the Treasury to moderate the big transport fare increases proposed for January. About £130 million, it is reported in the Sunday Times, will go to Transport for London.

Fares overall will still increase, and by more than inflation. But the rise is now capped to RPI plus 1 per cent instead of TfL’s previously-announced RPI plus 2 and the railways and Travelcards’ RPI plus 3.

Thus the rise in London will now average about 6 per cent across the board instead of the previously-announced 8 per cent (on Travelcards) or 7 per cent (on Oyster pay-as-you-go and cash singles.)

The actual new prices haven’t been given yet. But it should mean that, for instance, a zones 1-6 Travelcard goes up by about £120 a year instead of £160. A Zones 1-2 Travelcard will go up by about £66 a year instead of £88.

This begs a few questions. Firstly, given TfL’s massive spending on Crossrail and the like, it was intended that fares would continue to rise by RPI +2 until at least 2015. So are we simply we going to create a hole in TfL’s income that will have to be filled with even higher fare rises in 2013?

The answer is that it does look like Osborne’s £130 million (if confirmed) will be enough to last longer than one year. The originally-announced increases were due to raise £202 million next year, of which £92 million was from Travelcards and £110 million from the rest.

If the increases are now being reduced by about a seventh (or a quarter, for Travelcards) that will cost about £38 million next year, leaving another £92 million of the Osborne money to at least make sure that fares do not have to rise by more than planned in 2013 and beyond. It might even be enough to cap them, or some of them, below the planned levels in future years, too.

The second question is how, if at all, this affects the 2012 Mayoral election. Ken Livingstone has recently taken to claiming, rather implausibly, that he will cut fares if returned to City Hall. (Ken has promised to hold down fares at every mayoral election he has ever fought. Every single time, as he admits in his own autobiography, he has “broken my promise” once safely elected, or secretly planned to break his promise.)

The new Osborne move might however allow Ken to claim, perhaps more plausibly, that the Tories are feeling the heat from his policy. Boris Johnson, meanwhile, could argue that he has won extra money for London in a way which a Labour mayor could not.

When the actual revised prices are announced, I wonder whether it might it be politic for Boris to use some of the Osborne money to freeze some of the more totemic fares? I’m thinking especially of the Oyster bus single fare, which is due to rise from £1.30 to £1.40. Since TfL (for some reason, in the Oyster age, which I can’t quite understand) only prices in 10p units, this fare is unlikely otherwise to benefit from Osborne’s largesse. Just a thought, lads…

Attacking the Tube unions is a progressive act

Will automated Tube trains solve London Underground's problems?
Will automated Tube trains solve London Underground's problems?

A second leaked “confidential document” (aka press release) emerged this week about TfL’s plans for driverless Tube trains, revealing that they could begin as early as 2015. Someone is clearly testing the waters. Good.

It’s an idea I’ve been pushing for three years, since I went to Paris and saw how they’re automating an entire existing Metro line, their oldest and busiest (they already have one new-build driverless line). It greatly improves the service – machines deliver a more regular and consistent service than people; extra trains can be brought out at the push of a button if there are sudden spikes in demand. It is also by far the simplest way to deal with London’s second greediest, most reactionary group of employees (after bankers): the Tube drivers.

The pointlessness of dealing with them any other way was made clear last month. On October 3, the Tube drivers were given a pay deal of an immediate 5 per cent pay increase, backdated to April, plus guaranteed above-inflation pay rises for the next four years. It takes their salaries to £45,000 at once (backdated for the last seven months, in fact) and to perhaps around £52,000 by 2015. This is for 35 hours a week of extremely easy, if boring, work, with almost seven weeks’ holiday a year. They have also been given extra bribes of up to £1,200 to not strike (ie, do their jobs) during the Olympics.

Two days later, on October 5, they announced a further ballot for strike action.

I think, from conversations with some of the key people involved, that the talk of driverless trains is fairly serious, and it could form an important part of next year’s Mayoral election campaign. How will the public react? On one hand, the Tube unions are highly unpopular and attacking them is clearly a progressive action.

Their principal victims are London’s working poor, who must pay the highest fares in Europe to fund the drivers’ lifestyle, and lose a day or two’s pay (or even their jobs) whenever there’s a strike, in the cause of further enriching an already highly privileged group of employees.

Like the Fleet Street printers of old, the Tube drivers have shown little understanding of just how far they are stretching our patience, how much  they are pricing themselves out of work – or of the technological tsunami that threatens to sweep them away. The icing on the political cake is that Ken Livingstone, inevitably, has aligned himself with the forces of reaction and can truthfully be presented as a client of the Tube unions, two of whom have funded his campaign.

On the other hand, the worry will be whether the public in any way buys the unions’ claims that safety is at risk. It isn’t, of course: driverless trains are safer than traditional ones, because the platform edges are normally gated and the Underground’s principal source of deaths and serious injuries, people falling under trains, cannot happen. Even without gates, the DLR has been running driverless trains for 24 years without notable safety difficulties.

The way to overcome safety concerns (if they exist) is to announce that, as on the DLR, every train will still carry a member of staff. But instead of sitting locked away in a cab where they are of no help to anyone, they will walk through the train offering information, security and assurance to passengers. They will no longer, however, be able to stop the service by withdrawing their labour.

Boris Johnson's driverless Tube trains: the oddest argument yet

Boris Johnson plans to run again for mayor of London (Photo: Paul Grover)
Boris Johnson has revived discussion of tube trains without drivers (Photo: Paul Grover)

Boris Johnson’s proposal for driverless trains provoked a very curious article in yesterday’s Evening Standard from the respected transport commentator Christian Wolmar – described on the jacket of his very good latest book, Engines of War, as Britain’s leading transport journalist.

Wolmar told Standard readers that the “idea of driverless trains any time in the near future is a ridiculous fantasy” and  “the idea of completely unstaffed trains is equally fanciful.”

For Christian Wolmar’s future reference there are, in fact, 32 cities with driverless trains in daily passenger service – not even in the near future, but right now. They are: Ankara, Bangkok, Barcelona, Copenhagen, Detroit, Dortmund, Dubai, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Jacksonville, Kobe, Kuala Lumpur, Las Vegas, Lausanne, Lille, Lyon, Miami, Nagoya, Nuremberg, Osaka, Paris, Perugia, Rennes, Sao Paolo, Singapore, Taipei, Tokyo, Toulouse, Turin, Vancouver, Yokohama… and London (ours is called the DLR, Christian – it’s been around since 1987, you must have heard of it.)

Several of these cities – including Lille, Paris, Lyon and Las Vegas from personal experience – have one or more lines with completely unstaffed trains, without even an attendant on board. Both Paris and Nuremberg are in the process of converting existing, traditional driver-operated metro lines to completely unstaffed automatic operation.

Several other cities are building driverless metro lines or planning to convert some of their existing lines. Fanciful, ridiculous, fantastic? I don’t think so.

Boris Johnson threatens to get rid of striking Tube drivers

Boris Johnson is threatening to get rid of tube drivers (Photo: PA)
Boris Johnson is threatening to get rid of striking tube drivers (Photo: PA)

Boris Johnson last night threatened to get rid of Tube drivers and automate the system in the face of waves of “pointless” strikes by London’s greediest unions.

At his speech to the annual London Government Dinner, Boris said:

“When the Jubilee works are complete there will be three lines in London – the Jubilee, Victoria and Central – which will operate on an automated system.

“It is a fact – though not a widely known fact – that as we speak most of the Jubilee Line currently operates under automatic train operation, from Stratford to Neasden. In other words, the driving of the train is done by computer rather than manually.

“Of course there will still need to be someone aboard the train, but thanks to the advanced signalling being installed it is also a fact that anyone in this room could in a matter of a few weeks acquire the qualifications necessary to supervise an underground train.

“The huge potential implications of that change will be obvious to everyone, and so I say to our colleagues in the trades union leadership that I respect and understand the vital role of unions in a free society to secure the best terms and conditions for their members, but I hope they will recognise that the patience of Londoners is not endless.

“They should abandon the recent pattern of pointless strikes.”

A driverless Tube is an idea I’ve been pushing for a while now. In 2009, for the Standard, I went to Paris to see how their Metro, even more strike-plagued than ours, is automating its oldest line, Line 1, roughly equivalent to our Central line. Last year, the Tory group on the London Assembly also took up the idea.

Boris’s plan is less ambitious – the Paris trains, which run almost entirely underground, will not have any staff on them at all – but it makes perfect sense in transport terms, and even better sense politically.

Boris rightly sees the dismal behaviour of Aslef, the RMT and the TSSA – who since the autumn have held a series of strikes over total non-issues – as a political opportunity for him.

Londoners simply cannot understand the behaviour of these people, who are well paid, for easy work, with total job security and absolutely no grounds for complaint  – but still push for yet more, even as everyone else has to tighten their belts.

There are a lot of votes to be won in standing up to them – especially since Ken Livingstone, with his usual political brilliance, has locked himself in to a position as the Tube unions’ advocate and beneficiary.

Ken Livingstone: more Aslef links

Twenty-eight London Tory MPs this morning called on Ken Livingstone to condemn the Tube strikes by Aslef and hand back the £5000 donation he took from the union, first revealed on this blog. Ken has refused both demands.

Today, another link between Ken and Aslef: a senior official of the union, Simon Weller, will appear at Ken’s “Progressive London” conference next month, an event dedicated in Ken’s words to “building the widest possible alliance” against the Tories.  The conference is co-sponsored by Aslef and in 2009, I can reveal, the union donated £2,500 to “Progressive London.” A similar amount is likely to have been donated in 2010 and 2011.

Gerry Doherty, the general secretary of the TSSA, will also appear at the conference. The TSSA is separately striking on the Tube and has provided Ken with his campaign office.

Ken also received £10,000 from Aslef for his 2008 mayoral campaign, and £20,000 from the union for his 2004 campaign. In 2008, he also received £100,000 from another Tube union, Unite, which represents engineering and electrical staff and voted for industrial action in 2009. Unite’s London regional secretary, Steve Hart, will also speak at next month’s conference.

It is not immediately clear to me what is “progressive” about Aslef. These strikes are a nothing more than an attack by prosperous middle-class train drivers on poor, working-class Londoners, who are forced through their fares to subsidise the Aslef Lifestyle.

Aslef members on the Tube enjoy salaries of nearly £45,000 a year, a 35-hour-week, almost seven weeks’ annual holiday, a final-salary pension, free travel for themselves and anyone else they care to nominate, easy if boring work, and total job security. Now though this is an employment package not shared by perhaps 90 per cent of the London workforce, I don’t necessarily begrudge it to the Tube drivers. What I do say is that it can scarcely be described as legitimate grounds for grievance.

Yet now the oppressed toilers of Aslef are striking for triple time and further days off in lieu for working Bank Holidays – even though their extended holiday entitlement was given them precisely in order to compensate for this. Though Aslef is now back-pedalling on its threat to strike on the day of the Royal Wedding, there is no doubt that the threat was explicitly made.

Team Livingstone this afternoon desperately claimed that the evil Tories were bashing the Tube unions to distract attention from the bankers. In fact, the two groups are the same.

Just like the bankers, the Tube drivers have become people locked into a private value system, where the most outrageous behaviour seems perfectly reasonable. In some ways, the drivers are worse. Unlike the bankers, they are paid directly by the rest of us and their actions have an immediate impact on our lives.

Not only has Ken refused to condemn Aslef, he has actually called on Boris Johnson to negotiate with the union – as if there were anything whatever to negotiate about.

This is the core reason why Ken is unfit to be mayor: he will work for some of the capital’s most reactionary special interests, rather than in the interest of London as a whole.

Ken Livingstone's special relationship with the Tube strikers

Ed Balls in conversation with Ken Livingstone (Photo: EPA)
Ed Balls in conversation with Ken Livingstone (Photo: EPA)

(Updated- with statement from Ken)

As the Tube unions start the first of four 24-hour strikes, that well-known fighter for Londoners, Ken Livingstone, has fallen oddly silent called on TfL to give way to the strikers. Perhaps that’s because his campaign to become Labour’s candidate for London Mayor is being run from the headquarters of one of the striking unions.

Ken’s campaign offices are at the Euston HQ of the Transport Salaried Staffs Association (TSSA), the same union which will bring station staff, signallers and supervisors out on strike from 9pm tonight. (Update Dec 2010 – In an interesting indication of his sensitivity about this, Ken has now quietly changed the contact page on his website to a c/o address. However, his actual TSSA HQ address is still shown on various items of his campaign material. The fact that he is using a forwarding address suggests that he is still with the TSSA. And if he should take any more things down, don’t worry, I’ve got printouts for anyone who needs them.)

Ken refused to deny today that he’d been getting free or reduced-rate offices from the union, calling the issue a “distraction” and saying: “The TSSA are supporting me because I pursued a transformation of the transport system in London.” He doesn’t seem to have registered the benefit with the Electoral Commission, either, as he’s obliged to.

During his campaign for the Labour nomination, Ken has fought hard for such relatively small groups as, say, Corporation of London fish porters (it’s pure coincidence, no doubt, that they’re represented by another of his union sponsors, Unite). But he hasn’t yet found time in his busy schedule to condemn the strikers and speak up for the millions of ordinary Londoners whose journeys will be disrupted today.

Ken has also, by the way, taken money from another Tube union, Aslef. They’re not on strike just now, but it’s doubtless only a matter of time. And, yes, I know he’s condemned Boris Johnson’s cuts to Tube ticket office staff, the trigger for the latest strikes. Boris’s breach of an election promise is regrettable. But Ken has unfortunately neglected to mention that when he was mayor, he proposed even greater cuts. And that was before the meltdown in the public finances.

It all adds up to Reason No 94 why, if Ken is selected as Labour’s candidate, he will almost certainly lose in 2012. He represents sectional interests, as opposed to the broader interests of Londoners.

Further update 4.50pm: Ken’s spokesman’s latest response to this story is to claim that the office has been provided under a “commercial arrangement” with the TSSA, although he admits that no money has changed hands. When asked if the “commercial arrangement” involved the payment of a market rent, he refused to respond, saying: “They will invoice us at the end of the campaign and you will see how much they are charging then.” I’ll take that as a no, I think!

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.