Going down the Tube

As a (Greater) Londoner, born and bred, I always get a pang of joy whenever I hit Heathrow after a journey. But whether you’re returning or visiting, there’s always a shock in store. No, not customs, but the Tube. Nothing can prepare you for the onslaught. Dirty, smelly, crowded, uncomfortable, dangerous, delayed, even closed: the pleasures of Tube travel are decidedly daunting. And going down in the Tube station at midnight, to quote one of my heroes, is most definitely a no no.

During my formative years, however, things were different. I felt a loyalty to the beast, as the Tube was the quickest and easiest route out of suburban boredom to West End adventure. Back then I was an aficionado. I knew all the sneaky shortcuts, unmanned stations and speediest routes from A to B to Z. But these days I avoid the Tube like the plague, and I’m lucky enough to be able to do so. Working from home I’ve kissed commuting goodbye, and, having rejected the leafy pleasures of suburbia in favour of urban squalor, I can walk to Mecca, otherwise known as Oxford Street, or, if I’m in a hurry, jump on a bus, which is always highly entertaining.

I will attempt the Tube if visiting far- flung corners of London’s empire – Ealing, Wanstead or Brixton – and on those occasions I find myself wondering how is it that this great engineering achievement has been allowed to go down the proverbial pan.

According to the London Tube Campaign Newsletter, the Tube needs an annual investment of 700-750m a year, due to a 1.2bn backlog of repairs and maintenance work which has built up over 35 years of neglect. Staggering. Despite that need, the Tories cut the Tube’s budget for the next three years, by 430m, that’s a reduction of 28 per cent on planned figures from 1995. And the projected over-spend for the Jubilee Line extension, of nearly 300m, has to be met by London Underground out of its already over-stretched resources. With that sort of financial hill to climb, things are only likely to get worse.

How do I know this? All these scary figures landed on my doormat one morning. A few weeks before, I’d been reading my favourite magazine, The Big Issue, when a postcard fell out of it. The card bore a message, “Parliament is re-introducing capital punishment”, meaning: you, me and everyone visiting, living and working in London, will be subjected to an intensified form of torture previously known as Tube travel. So I signed and returned the postcard giving my support to the London Tube Campaign, and lo and behold, I was informed.

A total of 460 000 postcards were distributed at stations, through local newspapers and mailing lists supplied by affiliated organisations, which generated a response rate of 2.37 per cent – about five times the average response rate to such a campaign. Support also came from almost 300 constituencies across the country. So the message is clear. People care about the Tube, and consider it to be a national service, not only a local concern of Londoners.

With a new Government comes a clean sweep, hopefully. Now we have the delightful Glenda Jackson on the case, in her role as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State with responsibility for Transport in London. So I called the Department of Transport to find out what’s going on.

In the end a nameless press office spokesman told me that ministers are considering what to do and quoted the Labour Party’s Election Manifesto. Their aim is to set up a public sector-private sector partnership, to “safeguard the public interest and guarantee value for money”.

Shouldn’t be difficult, seeing as private-sector business in London relies, for its income, on staff and customers actually being able to get to work, the shops, cinemas, theatres, airports and so on. Couldn’t Marks & Spencer sponsor Marble Arch station and the John Lewis Partnership underwrite Oxford Circus?

BAA could invest in new track, between Heathrow and Hammersmith, so that weary travellers would be able to sleep on for that last half-hour before being jolted back to civilisation.

Am I being too literal? Are we in for a sell-off in the vein of British Rail? We’ll have to wait until the Budget later this month to find out.

Meanwhile, the message is clear. If you want to get informed, contact the pressure group in the know.

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