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Tubular rant

Everyone rants all the time about the Tube being rubbish. It’s practically a qualification for living in London, with instant deportation as a punishment for those who fail to join in. Which is fine: there are problems with the Tube, and it’s not as good as the public transport systems in East Asia (although I’d actually rate it at least as good as any public transport network I’ve visited in Europe or the US).

The thing which really annoys me, though, is when people blame Ken Livingstone, Tim O’Toole, Metronet or Tubelines for the system failures.

Between 1945 and 2000, with the exception of the absolutely-necessary-to-avoid-gridlock Victoria Line, the half-arsed-compromise Jubilee Line, and the Thatcher’s-Docklands-project-must-succeed Jubilee extension, there was no investment in the Underground system. None.

Central government skimped on the money for essential maintenance, and didn’t make any money available for capital projects such as major line or signalling upgrades. London was a declining city and the train was a declining transport mode – cars and suburbs were the way forward.

So anyone who blames the people in charge of the Tube for its state today is simply wrong. Ken, the current government, LUL’s current management and the infracos are the first people since the days of the London Passenger Transport Board in the 1930s to embark on a serious programme of upgrades to the underground. This isn’t necessarily because they’re all wonderful people, just that people have suddenly noticed that London is growing again and the private car is not a viable means of transport within London.

Yes, it gets frustrating when there are signal failures because 30, 50 or 80 year old kit doesn’t work very well. It’s also frustrating when there are signal failures or lift failures or train failures because brand new kit hasn’t bedded in yet [*]. But there’s a generally
understood curve over time in reliability of major capital assets – it doesn’t work very well when brand new, works quite well for some time after that, and then doesn’t work very well again because it’s too old. And at the moment, most of the kit on the Tube is either brand new, being replaced, or very old and knackered…

Hopefully, Ken’s Tory rival at the next Mayoral election will also be aware of the glaring reality that continued investment in London’s transport system is absolutely vital – although given their previous choices of a perjurer and a road-builder, I’ve got to admit I’m sceptical. But either way, anyone who refuses to vote Ken because they think he isn’t doing a good job on London’s transport is an idiot (of course, if they refuse to vote Ken because they don’t agree with his politics in other areas, then that’s a different story).

[*] or because a new high-speed train control system makes the trains accelerate so fast that the motors fall off, as with Automatic Train Operation on the Central line.

Categories: Transport
  1. ghost of mike oldfie
    June 29, 2007 at 4:50 am | #1

    Excellent post, but is that word "infracos" official, or did you make it up?

  2. July 4, 2007 at 1:05 am | #2
  3. July 5, 2007 at 12:22 am | #3

    I'm sure you're right ablout tube investment. Now, to cases – your tube quiz spreadsheet from 1806 or so. What are the answers to "healthy herd on the farm", "I'm a fraud" "DIY headgear" and "An elementary stop"??

  4. July 5, 2007 at 12:46 am | #4

    wow, that's a blast from the past.

    stockwell, amersham, baker street, no idea, and baker street (I've also lost the password, cleverly). however, I definitely worked DIY Headgear out once, so hopefully it'll be gettable again…

  5. WhyNoFleetLine
    July 5, 2007 at 4:13 am | #5

    The Victoria line is 13.25 miles long, the Jubilee 22.5 miles, totalling 35.75 miles. Out of a network of 253 miles this represents 14.1% built since the war in period when the national rail network contracted by half, and the underground itself saw some closures.

    Much of that 253 mile network is in suburban areas where surface line costs were substantially cheaper or else the underground took over surface lines such as the route to Ongar. In contrast both new lines were concentrated entirely in the very high cost central zone underground. The comparison to total mileage is therefore misleading – if we focus instead on underground mile or on the area within the Circle line the ratio greatly exceeds 14%.

    Even 14% represents a substantial investment under the conditions of the time. So your statement that "apart from that there was no investment…" is is technically true but misleading. Apart from the elephant, the room was empty.

  6. July 5, 2007 at 4:25 am | #6

    "Out of a network of 253 miles this represents 14.1% built since the war in period when the national rail network contracted by half, and the underground itself saw some closures."

    BR is a daft comparison – the lines closed were largely rural ones transporting air twice a day from Greater Piddling to Little Piddling.

    The point about London is that since about 1850 it's been so big and dense that public transport is the only viable way of getting around it (as I said somewhere else, you could close down all railway lines outside former Network Southeast and the PTE metro areas, and the net result would be annoyance and pollution rather than carnage).

    (and closures on the Underground consisted of a few Little Piddling-style branch lines to nowhere at the Met and Central lines' extremities, and the joke, only-built-because-Parliament-was-bloody-minded Aldwych branch).

    I'm saying investment in new lines was low because it was less than a third of the investment that, in the mid-1930s, was considered absolutely essential to keep London moving. I'm also saying that the investment not in new lines was sod-all, because it was (they replaced some trains that were 50 years old, and mended some signal cables).

  7. WhyNoFleetLine
    July 5, 2007 at 4:55 am | #7

    I take the point about BR. I meant to set the scene for rail investment generally. If you want an urban comparison then think tram or trolley bus. The consensus was that rail was yesterday.

    I'm not opposed to investment, but I think you vastly overstate your case. In the central zone most lines were built in two main phases: subsurface first and then tube. The thirties extensions were largely suburban and included the Central line extremities, much of it was already built. The two new inner circle lines represented a massive investment compared to that.

  8. July 5, 2007 at 5:02 am | #8

    The Jubilee Line may be 22 miles long, but the stretch from Stanmore to Baker St, must be 10 miles, used to be the Bakerloo line and has existed since the 30s. So no.

  9. WhyNoFleetLine
    July 5, 2007 at 5:16 am | #9

    Right we're down to 10%.

    Let's boost that back up with the lines to Heathrow, all underground from Hounslow West and built from 1975-1986.

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