Ken Livingstone on why the Tubes don't run all night

"Well," said Ken Livingstone, in that world-weary nasal whine you either love or hate. "In the rest of the world they have two sets of tracks, so you can use one and fix the other. But it didn't occur to the Victorians, so we're screwed."

I was asking about Boris Johnson's pledge to get the Tube running for an hour longer on Friday and Saturday nights and why, in his opinion, it hasn't been possible to do it?

"It's not unique, is it? Almost everything Boris promised hasn't happened. He went into that election not expecting to win and having no knowledge of local government. It was only after the event that he realised things were a lot more difficult than he thought. It'll be Brian Paddick this time around, saying 'We'll keep theTubes open later'," he said, referring to the forthcoming London mayoral election campaign.

Last week I spoke to the mayor, Boris Johnson's office about his election promise and heard from Transport for London. But Ken Livingstone was mayor of London for eight years between 2000 and 2008, will be standing against Johnson for the same job again next year and has all the experience of running the London Underground I'm sure anybody could possibly want. This makes him part of London's status quo but also a repository of considerable experience. So why is it that the Tube shuts when it does, messing up London's night-time economy and generally making it harder for people to get around?

"They've got the hours they need to do track inspection and repairs down to a minimum. So to do later opening at night, it would also have to open later in the mornings. We negotiated with the unions and we were going to keep the Tubes open half an hour later on Friday and Saturday nights and start half and hour later on Saturday and Sunday mornings. But the unions wanted more money. You've got to get an agreement with them to change their working hours and they expected to be paid for it."

Even though they wouldn't be working any longer?

"Yes. You see it's a trade off between someone's urgency to get to work in the morning or someone being able to get home at night half-cut. And people going to work very early in the morning are often some of the poorest."

Though obviously that wouldn't include Tube drivers, however early they started. While we're on the subject, have a look at the photograph in my previous blog, taken at 7.25am on a Sunday morning, which suggests that, whether they're working later on Fridays and Saturdays or not - and, let's face it, they're not - the Tubes open unforgiveably late at the weekends.

So why do the tracks need to be shut every night of the week? Surely that's overkill? "You have to examine each bit of track every 48 hours for hairline cracks," he said. "In one day a hairline crack can widen to the point at which it could throw a train from the track, which could be a catastrophic accident involving loss of life. There's only an inch between the tunnel and train, which is no leeway at all. If it were possible to inspect the tracks any other way we would have done it - because we could have got more money from running the Tubes later.

"In the rest of the world, you see, they have two sets of tracks, so you can use one and fix the other. But it didn't occur to the Victorians, so we're screwed. I know it sounds unbelievable but that really is the case. That's the trouble with being first to do anything. We built the first underground system in the world and then everybody else learnt from our mistakes. It was us, then New York and then Boston. And Boston's got two sets of rails."

But surely, with all this extra work being done at the weekends these days, shutting entire lines for more than 50 hours at a time, there's more flexibility with night-time opening than there used to be?

"Maybe in ten years time when all the track has been replaced we may be able to do it and run the Tubes for longer. But all they've done so far with this weekend opening is the Jubilee line, so it could be decades."

Hmm. So where's the best underground system he's seen? "In Shanghai they've built an underground system as big as ours in fifteen years, and all the trains are twice the size and there are - of course - two sets of rails."

Then there's a revelation.

"Crossrail will be able to run all night - that's going to have two sets. But it would be nearly impossible to go back and build another tunnel next to each of the existing Tube lines because there are too many tunnels criss-crossing each other under London already."

So if you're prepared to travel only east-west or the opposite and the unions can somehow be forced to submit, there's a chance you'll be able to do it through the night from 2018, which is when the first Crossrail trains are scheduled to run.

And with a cheery denial that he was in the bath while he was talking to me - "The strange noise on the line is probably Boris listening to my telephone calls" - he was gone.

Next I'll be looking at the limits of what unions can be forced to do under present legislation and seek interviews with Bob Kiley and Tim O'Toole, who ran the underground when Livingstone was mayor. I'm also going to look for better data about the 48-hour inspection regime and try to find out what that's based on.

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  1. Sorry Ken, but Crossrail will not have "two sets" of tracks (which means four lines in total). Its only having two tracks the same as all other London lines, so the chances of 24 hours running are slim.


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