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London Underground at 150: the best and worst of public-private partnerships

Brendan Martin, 10 January 2013

One hundred and fifty years ago today the world’s first underground railway opened to its first paying passengers when the London Metropolitan carried no fewer than 30,000 people between Paddington and Kings Cross.

“The 120 trains in both directions that day suffered no serious breakdowns and the only major delays were caused by the crush of people trying to get on the trains,” writes Christian Wolmar, in a new edition of his highly enjoyable history, The Subterranean Railway.

It is tempting to suggest that little has changed since (despite the Londoner’s default attitude of grumbling about the Tube!). There are still ‘no serious breakdowns’ on most days, but the system remains uncomfortably congested at peak times.

But much has changed, of course, and London Underground’s history as traced in Wolmar’s fascinating account can be read as a microcosm of the evolution of the meanings and political approaches to ‘public service’ through those 150 years.

The brainchild of the visionary Charles Pearson, who was the City of London Corporation’s in-house solicitor from 1839 to 1962, today’s London Underground links more than 400 kilometres of track represented schematically in the iconic map designed by Harry Beck in the 1930s.

Beck was then employed by the Underground as a draughtsman, and both his and Pearson’s contributions underline a truth that is often lost these days -- that the public sector at its best is full of imagination, innovation and creativity.

Sadly, Pearson died a few months before that first trip 150 years ago, but at least knew by then that it would happen. Some of his other ideas -- such as recommending that consumer cooperatives rather than private companies should own energy infrastructure -- are as relevant today as they were then.

The ethos he displayed has resonance too. That first Metropolitan line was run through what would now be called a public-private partnership (PPP), but when the company offered Pearson a reward, his response, Wolmar records, was:

“I am the servant of the [public] Corporation; they are my masters and are entitled to all my time and service. If you have any return to make, you must make it to them.”

How Pearson must have turned in his grave as the Underground’s latest PPP ended in a fiasco that cost some £1.5 billion - around $2.5 billion -- more than the same investments would have cost through conventional public borrowing.

Summing up that experience in a revised final chapter of his book, Wolmar notes that the PPP to upgrade the lines did mobilise a great deal of much needed investment before being scrapped only a quarter of the way through 30-year contracts, but he adds:

“The concept had been pushed through on the basis of extremely dubious evidence that suggested that the PPP would be cheaper than an entirely public-sector option, but in the event proved precisely the opposite.

“It is no exaggeration to say that billions of pounds were wasted in pursuing this ideological concept when the money could have been invested in simpler and more cost-effective ways of improving the Underground.”

  • The Subterranean Railway: How the London Underground was built and how it changed the city forever, Christian Wolmar, Atlantic Books (London), 2012 (Revised and Updated Edition).
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