UK government opening door to privatising tube, says union

Covid-19 review to explore ‘alternative operating models’ for the London Underground

A review of the London Underground is to take place following Covid-19 bailout. Photograph: Joel Ryan/PA Wire

A review of the London Underground is to take place following Covid-19 bailout. Photograph: Joel Ryan/PA Wire


The RMT trade union has accused the UK government of opening the door to privatising the tube after it was revealed that a review of Transport for London’s finances would consider “alternative operating models”.

According to the terms of reference published on Monday, the review – imposed as part of a £1.6 billion Covid-19 bailout package for London – will explore “whether there are any opportunities that alternative operating models could bring over the longer term, including consideration of structures and governance”.

The department for transport also flagged wider user of driverless trains. It said it would look for “efficiencies including workforce modernisation, and exploring the feasibility of extending driverless operation”.

The RMT warned of industrial action should the government attempt to pursue the plans. The union’s senior assistant general secretary, Mick Lynch, said there would be “the mother of all battles – including the option of all-out strike action”.

Lynch added: “It is utterly disgraceful that the government’s response to the heroic efforts of thousands of key tube workers who are risking their lives to keep London moving during the Covid-19 epidemic is to now threaten tube privatisation and driverless trains.”

He accused the government of “using the tube as a political football” before mayoral elections, which have been postponed to May next year owing to the pandemic.

One of the strongest critics of Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, has also been given a key role in the process. Andrew Gilligan has been placed on TfL’s board as a special representative of the government to advise the review.

The transport secretary, Grant Shapps, said he had directly appointed Gilligan – an adviser to No 10 on transport and a former Boris Johnson aide at City Hall – as the role required “a specific skillset”. Clare Moriarty, a former DfT mandarin, will be a second special representative.

A spokesperson for the mayor said: “London’s public transport network is central to life in our city and will be essential to the economic and social recovery of the capital and beyond. Sadiq looks forward to working with the government’s appointments to strengthen TfL’s future.”

The review was accepted by TfL as one of a number of conditions for a £1.6 billion bailout package from the UK government, after fare revenue dried up during the pandemic as the public were told to avoid all non-essential travel and leave public transport for key workers.

TfL argues its financial performance was strong before coronavirus hit, and it was on track to turn round its operating deficit by 2023. It had cash reserves of more than £2 billion in March, enabling it to run services without revenue this year.

Simon Kilonback, the chief finance officer at TfL, said: “Whilst our own financial performance has been strong, we have suffered from a lack of any long-term certainty for funding vital investment going forward. The coronavirus pandemic has made this more acute.

“We will be fully supporting and engaging in this review, and will set out our strong record of delivering efficiencies across our business and delivering the vital services London needs to function.”

A DfT spokeswoman said: “We have been clear, as part of our £1.6 billion support package for Transport for London to keep critical services running, that the deal must be fair to UK taxpayers and TfL must be put on a sustainable footing for the future.” – Guardian News and Media 2020