Wednesday, 22 February 2017

London Underground: Service As Usual

I switched on the BBC news this morning in the somewhat vain hope that there might be something of substance, rather than the endless 'heartwarming' pieces about children's charities and dogs surviving diabetes, but alas, it was service as usual.

It is service as usual on London's public transport as well, apparently.

Of the 14 lines (underground and overground) that make up the central system, no less than 4 go from 'severe delays', through 'partially suspended' to 'totally suspended'. 

This is totally normal, and it is totally unacceptable. The London Underground is one of the most expensive metro systems in the world, literally millions of people depend on it every day, and it doesn't work.

I understand that it is very old, some of the tunnels date from the reign of Queen Victoria (the Metropolitan line first opened in 1863), and they require a great deal of attention. But that is not the real problem, is it?

The real problem is privatisation, or rather, the legacy of a failed privatisation that should never have happened in the first place.

This left much of the infrastructure in a dire state, due to the inevitable under investment by the carpetbaggers  who moved in to slash costs, and to strip out all the profit they could, paying themselves and their shareholders mega-bucks, before going bankrupt and leaving the taxpayer to clear up the mess.

Also high on my own private hit list is the RMT, the trades union that many transport workers belong to. It is their decision to hold yet another 24 hour strike that has led to today's misery. Former RMT leader, the late Bob Crow, famously had a bust of Lenin on his desk; so you get the picture as to their position.

The fact that most lines are working today confirms the fact that the unions are losing their grip - in the 1970s it would have been "one out, all out", and the brothers would all retire to the pub to spend their strike pay and to prepare for the arrival of the worker's paradise.

My own experience is that the system becomes even worse with every tranche of staff cuts. Ticket offices are largely closed now, so forget about asking travel directions there, and if the ticket machines are out of order, you ain't going nowhere, mate.

Of course, if you have an Oyster card you can always top it up with cash at a newsagent or a corner shop. Mr Patel will respond to any gap in the market almost instantly - guess why Asian small businesses are so successful!

But the big disgrace is the lack of staff manning exit barriers. After the horrific 1987 fire at King's Cross, in which 31 people died and more than 100 were injured, it was revealed that when the fire took hold passengers were unable to escape through the barriers to safety quickly enough, meaning that many were blocked in with the flames and the smoke.

As a result it was made a legal requirement that all exit barriers should be manned at all times so they could all be opened immediately in the event of an emergency.

That requirement seems to have been quietly forgotten, and in the event of such a catastrophe occurring again in the future, the guy who would have opened the gates to let everybody out will at home filling in job applications.

The current Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, who I have a lot of time for, clearly understands the plight of travelling Londoners, and has moved to cap fares.

The problem with the underground, however, is that fixing it will require many years, decades even. Governments think in terms of electoral cycles, and so the foremost question in their minds is always "can we fix this before the next general election, and buy votes with the glory?" So its unlikely to be fixed any time soon, if at all.

My prediction is that it will be allowed to rumble on as it is until every penny of revenue has been milked out of it, then we will start to see some of the older lines being closed and abandoned.

(Caution: Video, whilst hilarious and a very accurate depiction of the commuter's life, does contain language that some may find highly offensive)

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