Anyone fancy running a railway? Because you couldn't do much worse than the gibbons who are running the London Underground at the moment. I'm talking about the tube's maintenance and renovation contracts here, and I'm talking the commercial disaster area that is Metronet. They thought repairing track and re-tiling stations would be easy. They thought it would be risk-free to cream off profits at the taxpayer's expense. They thought they had a 30 year licence to print money. They were wrong. And now they're paying.
Metronet has responsibility for maintaining nine of London's 12 tube lines. They look after rolling stock, stations, track, tunnels and signals, and are also in charge of upgrading the network. Do it well and they get paid handsomely, but get it wrong and there are heavy financial penalties. Unfortunately, for shareholders at least, a repeated string of incompetent balls-ups doesn't pay well. Unstressed rails buckling in the sun. Frozen points and snowy signal failures. Misplaced equipment derailing passing trains. Overnight engineering work over-running. Etc etc. So yesterday the independent PPP arbiter ruled that Metronet couldn't have lots of additional money to pay off a £2bn overspend, and now the company faces bankruptcy. Hoo bloody rah.
I see this as divine judgement for all the agonies that I, and three-quarters of the network, have suffered over the last 4 years. Metronet started their station renovation program at my local tube station, and made an almighty mess of it. They forced the station to close early when there was bugger all going on inside. They treated heritage features with contempt. They failed repeatedly to complete work to agreed quality thresholds. And they took 20 months to finally finish everything, whereas they were only scheduled to take eight. Two years later, and Bow Road isn't the only station they've botched. Have you been to Epping recently, or Ruislip Manor or Chigwell or Turnham Green or White City or Great Portland Street or Theydon Bois or Chiswick Park? Probably best not to look around too carefully. It's amazing that Metronet have limped on this far, to be honest. Their fall from grace is sweet justice.
But if/when Metronet collapses, there's going to be a downside. All that renovation work still needs doing, there'll just be nobody left to complete it. TfL will have to carry the can for the forseeable future, spending millions of pounds they'd earmarked for other projects. Various stations that are currently mid-re-tile will end up looking a mess for even longer. Metronet's five funding partners are going to have to write-off massive losses (and that's bad for me because one of them supplies my water and another my electricity). And thousands of Metronet's employees are likely to be out of a job, which is a shame because it's not your fault if your boss is rubbish (although perhaps you ought to have noticed by now).
Foreign investors are already circling like vultures, eager to snap up Metronet's leftovers. But I hope that somebody somewhere sees sense and takes this opportunity to pull the plug on these over-generous 30-year infraco contracts. Even TubeLines, responsible for upgrading the rest of the network, hasn't been doing the job terribly well - just relatively better. Why are we giving huge amounts of public cash to private investors? Surely their profits could be better spent on new trains and a decent lick of paint? It may be too late for Bow Road, but London needs to make a better job of protecting and restoring what ought to be the finest underground railway in the world.