Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Guardian 16.4.08 - Christian Wolmar

The London mayoral debate has focussed to a ridiculous extent on what type of buses the two main candidates favour. Boris Johnson's admission that he underestimated the cost of replacing bendy buses with revamped Routemasters is belated but welcome - if only in that it may allow the hustings to move to more fruitful areas.

Bringing back the Routemaster is simply not realistic. There may be better alternatives to bendy buses, such as conventional double-deckers with more doors and fewer seats downstairs, but the main point is that there are far bigger matters at play in the election. The most pressing issue facing the successful candidate is what to do about the failure of the massive Metronet public-private partnership contract, and yet this has hardly featured in the discussions.

Ken Livingstone does seem to have saved a large amount of money by renegotiating the contract with Bombardier to supply trains for the Victoria line. There was certainly no shortage of fat in all the various contracts which Metronet brokered with its subsidiaries.

The way the contracts were organised raised some serious questions, and I find it surprising that the police have not been involved. It worked like this: Metronet was a consortium of WS Atkins, Balfour Beatty, Bombardier, EDF Energy, and Thames Water, which signed contracts with those same companies for track maintenance (Balfour Beatty and Atkins) and trains (Bombardier) that were hugely favourable to the suppliers. In effect, Metronet tried to hoodwink TfL and the arbiter of the PPP, Chris Bolt, into accepting that it was obtaining a fair price from these suppliers when, in fact, they were designed to make huge profits for them. Then, because the PPP deal was regulated by the arbiter who could make TfL pay for any extra costs provided they were "economic and efficient", Metronet would have been able to make a profit for itself, as well as for its owners.

However, the pricing was so excessive and Metronet was so bad at trying to ensure that the work it paid for was carried out with a modicum of efficiency, that Bolt inevitably spotted something was seriously amiss with the contracts. Tim O'Toole, the very capable American who runs London Underground, has now ensured that the renegotiated contact with Bombardier delivers much better value for Londoners, with Livingstone suggesting that as much as £500m has been saved.

All this is far too complicated for the hapless Johnson - why does everyone insist on calling him Boris? - who has never run more than a small heavily subsidised magazine and who has uttered barely a word on the subject of the PPP contract. Yet if he were elected, he would seek to oust Peter Hendy, the transport commissioner, who also has long experience of PPP deals. Indeed, Hendy is in the process of buying out the Croydon Tramlink private finance initiative deal, effectively nationalising the business, because it is poor value for money and the contract prevents TfL from expanding the number of services cheaply.

Livingstone, however, is also guilty of ignoring the big issues on transport as he concentrates on hitting Johnson's long hops for six. He needs to articulate a real vision for London that builds on the success of the congestion charge scheme. That does not mean simply charging £25 to "gas guzzlers" which is a laudable though cheap stunt, but going much further and genuinely trying to squeeze the private car out of central London. Articulating such a policy would offer a real opportunity for debate, rather than ridiculous slanging matches over bus types.

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