New years’ eve – A good day to bury bad news on the tube

The signal box at Edgware Rd which inexplicably explains all the delays

The signal box at Edgware Rd which inexplicably explains all the delays

On New Year’s Eve, as Londoners prepared to see in the New Year, TfL announced the termination of the Bombardier signal contract on the sub-surface tube lines.  Back in 2010, TFL said that “It was imperative that we press ahead with the sub-surface upgrade which will see the introduction of new signalling which will be complete along the whole of the sub-surface network by 2018”.  So as we were about to enter the 4th year of that programme, TFL, dropped a bombshell and tried to convince us that the works could still be achieved on time and within budget. For many this all sounded very disingenuous.

This was the contract that was supposed to improve actual service levels.  Unlike the tube station upgrades and the new trains, whilst welcome, do not actually improve the frequency of the service. It is the signal upgrades that will do that, hence why Tim O’Toole (former Managing Director of London Underground) emphasised to a meeting of the London Assembly Transport Committee, the importance of this contract. Yet the political battle fought by this Mayor to bring these contracts back in-house and out of the controversial Private Public Partnership (PPP) has failed monumentally to produce the results which Londoners deserve.

The signal system at Edgware Road has been described as the “arm-pit” of the underground and “a relic from the first days of the network when there was only one line for the whole of London”  These works are an absolute imperative for commuters who use the Circle line, District and Hammersmith & City.  The delays and cancellations at Edgware Road are thanks to a signal box first fitted in 1928.  With its system of levers & pulleys operating a key junction of sub-surface lines, the Edgware Rd signal box is a symbol of the neglect which the tube service and commuters in Central London have had to endure.

The 1928 Edgware Road signal box was earmarked as part of the upgrades to be completed by 2018 resulting in faster and more reliable journeys, delivering around 50 per cent increase in capacity.  Since news about the Bombardier contract, it looks as though we are no closer to achieving these goals.  Furthermore, the need to retender the contract may well increase the cost of the works. TfL maintain there have been no changes to the planned delivery schedule or the budget at present, but “revised costs and delays will not be known until they re-let the contract”.  Bombardier acknowledged that test track demonstrations which were due to take place in August 2013 in order to hit the completion target date of 2018 were unlikely to take place until at least June 2015. Given that the August 2013 ‘key date’ has already been missed and that, according to the recently issued tender notice, the new contract will not start until June 2014, the current delivery plan is optimistic. The tender notice also states an estimated value between £450 million and £600 million, indicating that the cost of the works has increased significantly; this is on top of any costs already incurred with Bombardier of £85 million.

The Bombardier contract fiasco is not only bad for commuters; it also tells us a lot about this Mayor’s inability to manage contracts (remember Barclay’s decision not to review its sponsorship of the bike hire scheme and the controversy surrounding the “discriminatory” cable car sponsorship deal).  It also tells us something about TFL’s priorities for London Underground, because whilst it fails to manage a critical contract which will cut delays and frustration for many commuters, it’s main focus appears to be pushing for a 24 hour tube service on the deep tube lines by 2015. In other words, whilst they upgrade services on much younger nfrastructure, commuters using the sub surface lines have to endure the appalling service being managed by signal boxes dating back to the 1920’s.

l find it hard to believe that the signal upgrade for the long suffering users of the Circle, District & Hammersmith & City lines will be delivered within budget and on time and it was arguably a cynical move on the part of TfL to bury bad news on a day when most people were busy preparing for their New Year celebrations.  But as transport fares across London rose for the sixth year in a row and for each of the last five years fares above inflation, TFL should now come clean about why it took them two and half years to realise they had chosen the wrong contractor and what the real cost of the failed contact has been to Londoners.

A copy of the column is in this week’s West End Extra Forum.

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