Tempest on 'the tube': A row over London's subway

London's mayor is suing to block a partial privatization plan. A strike is set for May 3.

Every day, Londoner Julie Read leaves her home in Brixton and takes the subway - known here as "the tube" - to Old Street station in the city center. It is just nine stops.

"It's unbelievable. I never get a seat in the morning, and there is barely room to stand," she says. "It takes an hour door to door, but it is only about five miles. [But] what strikes me most is the expense for the service.... I resent paying a fare of 18 a week [$27] for that!"

It's generally agreed that the oldest subway system in the world is in serious need of investment and renovation. But a furious row has erupted over the way the upgrading is to be financed and carried out.

The dispute is uniting London's new left-wing Mayor Ken Livingstone - once dubbed "Red Ken" because of his politics - with key business organizations and labor unions against Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labour government. It has led to two tube strikes, with a third planned for May 3.

The outcome of the contest will have a major impact for public transport - vital to business and tourism in the British capital. With the tube already struggling to accommodate Ms. Read and her 3 million daily fellow travelers, overcrowding and delays will only get worse.

Formally known as the London Underground, the tube opened in January 1863 with steam trains, and acquired its first electric train in 1890. Since then, it has grown to a network of 12 lines and 275 stations, most north of the River Thames.

During World War II, it was a communal bomb shelter for the women and children of the capital during the terrible days and nights of the blitz.

In 1984, a tragic fire at the Kings Cross tube station that killed 30 people led to some reinvestment in services. Since then, the general safety record has been good.

The most recent new track was an extension to the Jubilee line, completed in 1999, leading east to Greenwich and the financially troubled Millennium Dome.

But any begrudging historic pride by Londoners is now outweighed by a widespread conviction that the service needs serious overhaul. David Meilton, a journalist, has used the service for more than a decade. "The trains are badly regulated. The infrastructure is crumbling. It is not capable of arriving on time nor of carrying the amount of people that want to use the service," he says.

Mr. Blair's government estimates that the tube needs at least 13 billion ($19.5 billion) invested over a period of 15 years to deliver a modern, safe, and reliable service. It proposes to achieve this through a scheme known as public-private partnership, PPP for short.

Mr. Livingstone and his American transport guru, Bob Kiley, who gained a formidable reputation for reversing the fortunes of the Boston and New York subways, both oppose PPP. So do many Londoners.

The trade unions challenge the PPP plan - although they also are concerned about possible job losses. And Ruth Lea, head of policy at the right-wing Institute of Directors, says the government's plans are "mad," and that the business community is 100 percent behind Livingstone.

The controversial proposal divides the system into four parts. The first part, the trains, would remain in the public sector, the other three parts being a number of the train lines and allied infrastructure. These would be leased to private companies.

The government says this will deliver a steady stream of cash for refurbishment - and pledges that every station will be upgraded within the next eight years, and that more than 50 will be fully modernized.

But Livingstone and Kiley maintain that dividing the trains and track - broadly adopting the model of an overland railway privatization completed in 1997 - would place passengers at risk.

A series of high-profile rail accidents, the most recent in Hatfield, outside London, last October, have left many Britons disillusioned with a plan that divides the responsibility for rail infrastructure from the trains themselves.

Livingstone contends such a division on the tube could lead to another Hatfield under London streets. He recently unleashed an ad that shows a packed subway car with the slogan: "Let's not turn sardines into guinea pigs."

The mayor has gained leave to challenge the government's plan in the High Court. A hearing is set for June 12. Livingstone maintains that according to the act of Parliament that set up his office, he gained responsibility for ensuring a "safe, economic, and integrated" transport system. The mayor's lawyers will argue that PPP is none of these things.

But the row over the tube is not just a row about safety, says Ben Jones, a writer at Rail magazine. It is also about politics. Livingstone was kicked out of the Labour Party when he ran for mayor of London against the candidate favored by Blair. Now, the rebel is getting his own back on the premier, whom some critics have called a "control freak" for his attempts to silence dissent.

Many view the safety concerns raised by PPP as genuine. But alongside those issues, are the key political questions: Who controls the tube? Is it the government or the mayor? And ultimately, who controls London?

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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