I attended my first transport committee since the reshuffle this morning. The committee has set itself the considerable task of investigating service failures on London Underground. TfL place the blame on the discredited PPP initiative - but is this excuse wearing a bit thin? Joining us were the former PPP arbiter, Chris Bolt, John Dickie from London First and Bob Crow from the RMT. Crow was accompanied by Steve Connolly from Aslef, a more softly spoken and thoughtful union official.
Industrial action has risen since Boris became mayor, but the union reps claimed that there was no political motivation for this. They felt that their members were responding to threats and with a contracting budget after years of relative plenty this was understandable. Steve Connolly made an interesting intervention, claiming that LU's performance targets must be weak if they could be disrupted by 'just five strikes', a comment that begs the question, how many strikes is it reasonable to expect? I suppose it depends on the organisation but the higher rate within the public sector reflects a preoccupation with provider interests rather than customer needs.
A discussion of the threat to the Olympics led Bob Crow to insist that London Underground's offer to staff should be at least as generous as Network Rail's £500 payment per individual. In response to John Dickie's claim that strikes cost the capital's businesses £50 million per day, Bob responded that this demonstrated how much his members were worth and that their pay should increase to reflect that sum.
Bob was in no mood to take prisoners and challenged a proposal to require a 50% participation threshold for strike ballots, as being an attack on democracy. He pointed out that Conservative AM Dick Tracey had received less than 50% support from his constituents at the election - an argument that he has used before. Of course that is like comparing oranges to apples as one is a vote to elect an individual and the other is a vote to approve an action. Perhaps a more valid comparison would be with the AV referendum, where many of us felt that a participation threshold should have applied.
A suggestion that more stringent New York style legislation be brought in - banning strikes altogether - provoked a response that America also has the death penalty but we don't talk about introducing it. With logic stretched to such incredible lengths, we decided to move on - but not before Green AM Jenny Jones had suggested to Bob that his members come to work but refuse to collect fares or close ticket barriers...
The whole renewal process is taking much longer than originally planned. The Jubilee signalling work was intended to be complete by the end of 2009 but would now take until 2012 - hopefully. The Northern Line work had slipped from 2011 to 2014. Obviously everyone was quick to blame the PPP contractors, but John Dickie pointed out that these same companies successfully deliver projects on time and budget all over the world. There was much talk of Madrid as a tube system we could learn from.
With night time and weekend work proving inadequate it was now time to consider block closures of whole sections of line whilst the work was carried out. Bob Crow stated that really the whole lot - trains, signalling, tracks, drainage - should be renewed at the same time. This would ensure better compatibility between the elements of the system but would take longer and cost much more. Block closures would be relatively painless in Zone 1 where there were plenty of public transport alternatives. Not so good in outer London where other radial lines could become overcrowded as commuters sought alternative routes.
Chris Bolt mentioned that London Underground had always claimed that the PPP companies needed less time to do the work. He suggested that LU now had a chance to prove their case, having taken the projects over. The committee will return to this rather telling point when we take evidence from London Underground on 14th June at our next meeting.