Confessions of a Political Animal

March 28, 2010

Boris and Transport: Easy Words, Broken Promises

Two years and half way through Boris Johnson’s first – and I trust, only – term as London Mayor and the opposition parties on the London Assembly rightly took the opportunity last month to step up scrutiny of the Mayor’s…ahem…interesting approach to his manifesto pledges.

Johnson’s 2008 manifesto was a fascinating mix (rather like the man himself) of the sweeping, the generalised, the populist and occasional flashes of obsession with random bits of minutiae. But what was partially evident at the time of it’s publication, and has become even more so since, is that it was written with very little input from anyone who had the foggiest idea what they were talking about. Nowhere was that more clear than in the transport manifesto, saved from oblivion by The Guardian here. Everyone knows its headline-grabber: the removal of the bendy bus and the introduction of a new Routemaster – a policy which it has since become clear has no significant economic, environmental, safety or public utility case to its name. Sadly, this was not a lone case. And a badly thought-out, media-driven manifesto means a manifesto that gets broken all too easily, with just this week a new entrant to the fast growing list emerging.

“It is not good enough…that the Tube doesn’t run later on Friday and Saturday nights. […] It would be a major benefit to Londoners if the Tube ran one hour later on Friday and Saturday nights, and we want to see this happen.” (p.20)

If it wasn’t good enough when Johnson wrote his 2008 manifesto, he’ll have to say that it still isn’t good enough when/if he writes the 2012 version. This week saw the death of this pledge after TfL announced that it was impossible to implement later running and that this would remain merely ‘an aspiration’. This should have come as no surprise to anyone who has had a passing interest in London’s transport pre-2008 – so we can assume it came as a surprise to the Mayor. In his second term, Ken Livingstone consulted on running a one hour later service on Fridays and Saturdays, with commencement of service at weekends cut back by one hour to ensure the amount of time available for engineering and upgrade works was not curtailed. From the consultation it became evident that the later start would leave the many commuters, particularly shift workers, who relied on an early Underground train at weekends heavily inconvenienced, so in 2006 TfL proposed a compromise: running trains 30 minutes later on both Fridays and Saturdays and cutting back starting time on Saturday mornings by one hour whilst leaving Sundays unaffected (this would have meant that Saturday and Sunday start up times were the same). However, by February 2007 it had become clear that negotiations with unions over changed working hours had ground to a halt, and the proposal was shelved.

Despite all this, Johnson in his manifesto reverted to the original proposal of an hour extra for both Friday and Saturday, strangely neglecting to mention that this would need two hours to be cut from somewhere else. Even if this barely-disguised Thatcherite could have succeeded where Livingstone failed with the RMT and ASLEF, he would either have had to at least partially break his manifesto promise by implementing the 30-minute extension plan or taken a potentially highly unpopular decision to leave early-morning commuters without an Underground service. And we all know Johnson doesn’t like making unpopular decisions. So, this manifesto promise was setting Johnson up for a fail, as anyone with a bit of nouse could have told him. The Mayor is trying to claim that upgrade work is what is preventing him from keeping his pledge, but this is clearly rubbish: whilst upgrade work does take place at night, so too does the day-to-day engineering work necessary to keep the Underground running. Even when the upgrades are complete, it is almost certain that any extension of operating hours in the evening will have to be matched by a curtailment in the morning.

“Listening To Londoners On The Blackwall Tunnel…We will work with the police to investigate measures on how to improve safety, with the intention of re-instating tidal flow at the earliest opportunity.” (p.16)

Johnson used the 2007 ending of the ‘tidal flow’ (a contraflow in the peak hours in one of the two tunnel bores) in the Blackwall Tunnel with some success to drum up support in southeast London. Inevitably, this became portrayed as a socialist anti-motorist plot (a well-known local journalist has a oh-so-hilarious line about ‘Transport for Livingstone’), despite the reality that the order to end the tidal flow came from the well-known Trotskyites in the Metropolitan Police who saw an increased number of motorists overtaking in the contraflow which presented a serious safety risk. The Met eventually ended the tidal flow following a motorcyclist being injured in a collision – Boriswatch has a good summary of the timeline here. The removal of the tidal flow led to a noticeable increase in congestion on the tunnel approaches. Once in office, Boris continued to insist he would restore the tidal flow, but two years on there is no sign of this ever happening – it seems likely that the Met have basically told Johnson that they won’t police a reintroduction of the tidal flow and that any serious accident arising could potentially see TfL facing a corporate manslaughter charge. Checking the viability of a manifesto pledge is generally thought to be a Good Thing, but Johnson seems to prefer simplistic populism. It is hard not to disagree with Greenwich & Lewisham Labour Assembly Member Len Duvall, when he writes

“The Mayor was irresponsible and unwise to raise local expectations of a reintroduction of tidal-flow at the tunnel given the significant safety implications of doing so”.

“In the short-term we will commission a trial of orbital express bus routes for outer London, connecting key hubs…These will be express buses…limited to two or three
stops along each route, [using] coach style vehicles.”

On paper, the introduction of express orbital buses to fill gaps in the rail and Underground network seems a sensible idea, and fitted nicely with Candidate Johnson’s professed concern for the outer boroughs. The only problem is that those who read the manifesto might have expected a brand new route to be introduced as part of the trial. Except it wasn’t: instead an existing route, the X26 (which had been introduced as a limited stop successor to the 726 in 2005) had it’s frequency doubled to half-hourly. The service runs between West Croydon and Heathrow Airport and makes at least twelve intermediate stops, not the “two or three” specified in the manifesto – precisely the same stopping pattern as already existed before Johnson’s election. Further, it seems unlikely that passengers boarding the Scania OmniCities used on the route (pictured on this page) would describe it as a ‘coach style vehicle’. A perfectly good modern urban bus, but not a coach. Despite this trial being pretty half-hearted in the context of the pledge, it has still cost an extra £1m in subsidy, and failed to convince TfL that there should be any further expansion of express orbital services. As their November 2009 report says:

“The level of benefit delivered per pound of investment suggests that further investment in express orbital routes would not be a priority over other calls on funding.”

That’s the end of that pledge, then.

“We will also convene an emergency public summit of all the train operating companies in London and Government representatives, in our first few weeks in City Hall.” (p.23)

‘First few weeks’ would be an interesting definition of the 89 weeks it took for the ’emergency public summit’ to be convened. Presumably this level of delay was to ensure that the train operators felt at home. Once the summit actually happened, on 12th February this year, it lasted around one hour and (as Adam Bienkov reported) Assembly Members were barred from participating. Thus, the summit took place after the deal on the acceptance of Oyster Pay-As-You-Go on National Rail, which included an insanely complex fare system and the imposition by rail operators of the much-derided Oyster Extension Permit. So far as I can tell, absolutely nothing of any note emerged from the summit when it was held. Given the lack of urgency in the emergency summit, it could be fair to say that the train operators will have seen Boris as something of a push over – a more hands-on approach might have led Johnson to properly keep the pledge that

I will, unlike the current Labour Mayor, work with the local councils who fund [the Freedom Pass] to make it operational 24 hours a day. (p.8)

Whilst it is true that the Freedom Pass has become a 24-hour benefit on TfL services, there is still no agreement to make it available on National Rail services before 09:30, limiting the usefulness of the extension for older people living in many areas of London.

We want to introduce no-strike deals, and bind London Underground to independent arbitration when negotiating pay settlements. (p.23)

The inclusion of no-strike deals in Johnson’s manifesto was enough, alongside the bendy bus shenanigans, to convince many observers that Johnson, or whoever was writing the manifesto, was pretty illiterate in terms of London’s transport. The idea that any of the largest unions on the Underground would give up the most powerful weapon in their locker is, frankly, naive. It has emerged that Johnson may in fact realise this – he has admitted making no approaches on this subject to the unions, presumably for fear of just how hard Bob Crow, Keith Norman and Gerry Doherty would laugh. Johnson has now begun, rather inexplicably, started blaming the government for his inability to carry out this pledge, telling the Assembly that

“The single biggest obstacle to a no-strike agreement … is that we do not have the right government in Westminster.”

However astoundingly confrontationalist Cameron’s rhetoric on the Unite/BA situation has become, it seems unlikely that a Conservative government would change legislation to allow employers to force no-strike deals on the unions. Suffice to say that if any such attempt was made, you’d be lucky to see a moving Underground train this side of the Olympics.

“We deplore Ken Livingstone’s proposed closure of 40 London ticket offices on the underground network, including at several important suburban stations and key central London stations, such as Cannon Street and Regent’s Park…Manned ticket offices provide a reassuring, visible presence…We will halt all such ticket office closures immediately.” (p.38)

So immediate was this halting, that TfL appear to have continued to work on it for the past two years, eventually publishing proposals this month to make significant reductions in the opening hours of large numbers of ticket offices, which include almost seven hours worth of extra closures at Heathrow Terminal 4 and more than four hours at many others. A number of ticket offices will close entirely, mostly at stations with multiple offices; sadly for Mr Johnson the one exception to this rule is one he specifically picked out in the manifesto – Cannon Street (Regent’s Park ticket office had already closed before the elections). Ironically, Johnson is using the same arguments that Livingstone made before the elections for his proposed ticket office closures: that the number of Oyster users now means there is little call for manned ticket offices. Johnson, of course, vociferously opposed and signed petitions against these closures. Once again, the cold realities of power have rudely interrupted the populist reverie of Johnson’s manifesto. Maybe if he’d asked someone who knew something, he could have saved himself the embarrassment.

In all this we haven’t even touched on the transport policies that weren’t in the manifesto but have emerged since – primarily the cuts to major infrastructure projects. The breaking of innumerable policy pledges (and there will no doubt be more to come) is a rich seam for London’s opposition parties to mine in the run-up to both the general and mayoral elections. More power to their elbows.

1 Comment »

  1. […] Political Animal. You may remember me from such blogposts as the dull one about traffic lights, the ranty one about Boris Johnson, or the one with the pretty […]

    Pingback by Welcome | Travels of a Political Animal — February 12, 2011 @ 1:58 pm | Reply

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