This morning Boris and transport commissioner Peter Hendy appeared before the full Assembly to take questions. Each of the groups had one lead question and this time my team went first:
We led off by asking what was being done to increase transparency at TfL, an organisation that has historically been more of a closed book than most public authorities. Boris vowed that every invoice over £500 would be published on line by the end of January. He also claimed that TfL dealt with over 2,000 questions and 2,500 pieces of correspondence from Assembly Members every year. With only 25 members this sounds like a lot, but over a year it is only two queries per week and I am sure that my office is responsible for its share. I asked how many of these were reminders because TfL had failed to respond adequately and Mr Hendy undertook to provide a breakdown by subject area.
Peter felt that TfL provided a very good service compared to his time running a private bus operator in Northampton where letters from politicians had not been treated as a priority, indeed had not been responded to at all quite often.
We highlighted the lack of political representation on the board of TfL and suggested that the Mayor appoint some Assembly Members to create greater accountability. He promised to consider this wise advice...
Next came the Greens, praising cycle superhighways and the cycle hire scheme, but claiming that Ken should get the credit. Jenny Jones claims to be standing for the mayoralty herself but all her efforts go into boosting the Livingstone campaign - hardly surprising as she was Ken's deputy mayor for a year.
I asked why cycle superhighway number 2, originally intended to run out to Ilford, was now being terminated at the Bow Flyover. Newham Council have objected to running the highway through their borough, thus preventing it reaching Redbridge. Boris promised to review the decision with TfL and committed himself to encouraging cycling in outer London boroughs like Redbridge.
Value For Money
The Labour Group - managing their time effectively for once - used a broad question about value to raise public transport performance issues.
Their first concern was the recent safety scare on Metroline buses, reported in the Evening Standard. Peter Hendy reassured the Assembly that the story was exaggerated and the worrying statistics were the result of over zealous inspections by one individual.
Next Val Shawcross complained about ongoing maintenance work and the delays and line closures on the Underground. Peter Hendy placed a lot of the blame on Gordon Brown's PPP, claiming that the new Victoria Line trains had not been run in properly before they started service, resulting in delays when the doors jammed open in some cases. On the Jubilee Line resignalling work had fallen behind schedule, leading to the current poor service. More bad news was expected on the sub surface network as the tracks would need to be reconfigured to run longer trains. All this work will improve reliability and capacity but the disruption continues to be considerable.
For a bit of light relief we asked Peter about Livingstone's record, and he confirmed that he had advised against a fares freeze before the election. Subsequent large increases were necessary to make up the budget shortfall.
The Lib Dems were less than enthusiastic about the new buses, which are due to take to London's streets later this year. Green Member Darren Johnson went further, saying that he was pleased the Routemaster had gone, and that he didn't see why the capital needed a special bus design.
Boris promised that we would all welcome the new 'Routemaster for the 21st Century' with its disabled access, clean engine and iconic design. I was pleased to hear that the trend to remove seats to create space for buggies and wheelchairs had stopped - with TfL admitting that most mobility impaired passengers needed seats. Jennette Arnold made a telling point about the existing wheelchair ramps not working, citing one case where 23 buses on one route had failed to provide access. The mayor promised to review the case and ensure the ramps were available in future.
The session was both entertaining and informative, Boris was very confident and sure of himself throughout, with Peter Hendy providing detailed responses when needed. They took performance concerns seriously and promised improvements - within the constraints of operating a complex network in a large metropolis. This was a reassuring session.