Monday, July 25, 2011

Building The Tube

This morning the Transport Committee met to take evidence from TfL. In the hot seats were board member Christopher Garnett, who chairs TfL's rail and underground panel and veteran engineer David James, brought in post PPP to run the new Independent Investment Programme Advisory Group or IIPAG for short.

IIPAG comprises eight experienced engineers and project managers from the rail industry. They are reviewing the projects carried out under PPP with the aim of saving over £1 billion and improving delivery. IIPAG reports, we were told, send tough messages about what needs to be done, messages that are respected because of the experience of the Group. We had to take their word on this as the IIPAG reviews are not public documents and we don't get to see them. The reports are considered by TfL's Finance Committee who are regarded as much tougher than previous boards - Christopher Garnett memorably described the boards that Ken Livingstone appointed as 'malleable'. Meanwhile, the results will be summarised in an annual report from IIPAG which will be a public document.

On the positive side, David James reported that PPP had created a comprehensive register of London Underground assets, documenting the state of each line - something which was not previously available. Current performance was also good, with the Northern Line unusually delivering its best results ever and the Piccadilly not far behind. Of course things aren't so good on the Jubilee and we would return to that later.

On the negative side, IIPAG had concluded that project management skills in TfL were not equal to delivering major upgrade work. Skilled people were available but TfL would have to recruit them and pay a competitive rate - including a bonus for successful completion of projects on time and within budget. IIPAG had recommended that TfL set up a central project management team with an overview of both railways and surface transport. Instead TfL planned to set up two teams, keeping these areas separate. This was a bone of contention with IIPAG claiming it would lead to extra costs and division across projects, when 80% of the work was being done in London Underground.

IIPAG was benchmarking the various lines against one another to identify best practice, but they did not see the value of benchmarking with other metros at this stage, because the London system is older and larger than most, with a greater number of deep level lines.

Victoria Line

A review of the work done on this project concluded that the work had gone well, particularly on the new signal system. The only problem had arisen because new train doors were over sensitive and the trains had not been sufficiently run in before they were introduced.

Jubilee Line

The Jubilee resignalling project had not gone well and there were lessons to be learned. IIPAG recommended that future line upgrades should be done in sections rather than across the whole line to reduce disruption. They also recommended testing of signalling and train IT off line before their introduction and earlier involvement of the drivers and signallers who would have to use the kit.

Surprisingly the specification for the Jubilee Line signalling had ruled out two directional working as an unnecessary refinement. This mistake would not be repeated.

Northern Line

An established signalling system would be used in the Northern Line upgrade, minimizing the risk of breakdown. This time the contract was between London Underground and the supplier, so LU's responsibilities were clear. The Northern Line project was due for completion before the complex sub surface line resignalling started.

Circle, District, Hammersmith & City, Metropolitan

Resignalling of the sub surface lines was the next big project. Composed of over 40 individual projects a high level of oversight was required. IIPAG had recommended the appointment of a leading industry figure, and they would be monitoring the progress of the project - including costs - carefully.

The new signalling system was the same as the one recently installed at Madrid with no weekend closures! Whilst closures could not be ruled out in London they would be kept to an absolute minimum, certainly fewer than experienced in other recent Tube upgrades.

Bakerloo, Central, Piccadilly

Upgrades on these lines were due to complete in 2017/18 but they had fallen back because of a shortage of funding. London Underground would be making the case to government for the funding of the last three PPP projects, thus completing a process that feels like it started a lifetime ago.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Stop The Press - It's Mayor's Questions

Yesterday saw the last Mayor's Question Time before the recess. This is traditionally a fairly rowdy affair as members let their hair down in anticipation of a long break and Wednesday morning was no exception.

A prepared list of questions largely went by the board in favour of a feeding frenzy around the News International scandal and the mayor's involvement.

News of The Screws

Ken Livingstone was in the public gallery for the initial exchanges. He was wearing his dark suit which only ever sees the daylight when he wants to be seen as serious, so he was clearly expecting to face some questions himself. Actually he had just come from the launch of Labour's London Assembly candidates, a diverse group that includes Tracey Ullman's daughter - might come in useful to have someone who knows the words of 'Break Away'....

Len Duvall led the Labour group's charges against Boris. These centred around the fact that the mayor himself had experienced News of The World phone hacking but had declined to be a witness in the prosecution of those responsible back in 2006. More seriously he was chairing the police authority in 2009 when AC John Yates had decided - after a review lasting eight hours - not to reopen the case, and he had subsequently made some dismissive comments at Question Time.

On the first charge I have some sympathy with Boris. At the time he was an MP and had no responsibility for the police, and understandably he had no wish to see his personal life dragged through the courts with all the consequent publicity. The police had told him that his cooperation was not necessary and indeed they did secure convictions against Mulcaire and Goodman without his help. Both men received significant prison sentences.

On the second charge, Yates had assured Boris that there was no public interest in pursuing further prosecutions given the other priorities that Scotland Yard faced. To have issued conflicting orders might have looked like a personal vendetta, given that the mayor had himself been a victim.

Ken came in for some stick as well, and he sat grim faced in the third row whilst Conservative members revealed his list of meetings and social contacts with Murdoch, Brooks and co. They also highlighted the many payments he received from News International for writing their newspaper columns.

It's a microcosm of the debate which was going on up the river at Westminster. For the last two decades politicians, police and the press have enjoyed a cosy relationship, largely dictated by the enormous power wielded by the editors and proprietors. One day the music was going to stop, leaving everyone looking tainted.

Not that I blame the politicians for currying favour. Kinnock (1992), Major (1997), Hague (2001), Duncan Smith (2003) and Brown (2008) were all heavily damaged by hostile news reporting and there was a view that you could not win an election in the UK without Murdoch's support. I think that view was exaggerated, it was less 'The Sun What Won It' and more 'The Sun What Predicted It and Joined the Winning Side', but even so it was never an advantage to have them working against you.

For police chiefs and people running other public organisations a positive press was essential to maintaining public confidence. They don't have PR departments for the fun of it.

And for those of us further down the political chain, backbench MPs, Assembly Members, Councillors, well we just kept our heads down and hoped they wouldn't notice us. To complain publicly about the press was akin to standing up to complain about snipers in a war zone. Only the foolhardy would do it once, only the lucky would do it twice.

And at the very end of the meeting, I posed an uncomfortable question that can't have been only on my mind. Had members of the Assembly been hacked? With a list of 4,000 victims less than 200 of whom have been informed, I believe this is a real possibility. And have members of the Metropolitan Police Authority been hacked?

There's a lot of blame being passed around at the moment. I'm just pleased that the music has stopped and there is the prospect of a new start. The End of The World leaves a gaping hole which may widen if other titles follow it, and we need to be very vigilant about how that gap is filled. The cross party motion in Parliament yesterday was a good start and it would be nice to see the same spirit prevail at City Hall.

Mini Cabs

In the shadow of the Murdoch furore, members did manage to raise some other important matters. I have received complaints about unlicensed mini cabs recently so I asked Boris about his plans to drive these cowboys off our streets.

The enforcement unit had been doubled in size to 68 police officers and a recent operation in Marylebone had resulted in 39 arrests. In the year up to May 2011 the number of reported sex attacks in mini cabs had fallen by 20%. Nevertheless there was still a lot to do and the fact that 79% of those arrested already had criminal records highlights a problem with repeat offending.

For passengers seeking a licensed vehicle there is the Cabwise service - text CABWISE to 60835 - which provides the details of three reputable carriers near to the desired location.

I still get plenty of emails about taxi touts both in central London and on my own patch so TfL and the Met Police cannot afford to rest on their laurels.