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19 August 2016

Missed deadlines, crippling strikes, and Boris Johnson: the difficult journey of the Night Tube

As the London Underground begins to run all night, we look back at a project that was very nearly derailed by a stubborn London Mayor and industrial disputes.

By Conrad Landin

Tonight the capital will breathe a collective sigh of relief. Scrambling to a bus stop cradling a lukewarm McDonald’s meal in the chilly small hours may be something of a London tradition, but it’s not one that will be missed. In a year’s time, we’ll wonder how we ever lived without the all-night weekend Tube trains that launch this evening.

Some will no doubt offer thanks to the former London Mayor who made it happen: Boris Johnson. It is, you’d think, a huge injustice that he can’t cut the ribbon – and probably won’t even be remembered for this great legacy.

But perhaps he should be glad of this. For the Night Tube, starting almost a year later than planned, is not just an lesson in how to spectacularly botch a launch. It’s also a damning indictment of a Mayor who was expert at alienating the very people he needed to succeed: his workforce.

From news reports, it’s easy enough to conclude that transport unions are a bunch of dinosaurs who will resist progress at any cost. But more often than not, the opposite is true. Big projects mean investment in their industry and, crucially, more jobs.

Aslef, the drivers’ union, is likely to gain over 200 members – and their subs – from the Night Tube. The lobbies for HS2 and Heathrow expansion are always keen to emphasise union support. And for good reason. The recent Southern Rail dispute has shown that mass transit operations can only succeed with a willing and supportive workforce – not just among your current staff, but in the skilled pool you’re reaching out to when trying to expand.

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As London Mayor, however, Johnson had a different tack. He sailed to victory in 2008 promising to thrash out “no-strike agreements” across London’s transport network. This was, at best, unrealistic, in the light of the Tube unions’ historic militancy. Once at City Hall though, he didn’t even try – consistently refusing to meet with unions.

With the Night Tube, Johnson took his belligerence a step further. Union reps first heard of successive waves of Johnson’s plans in the papers, and new, disputed rosters were pinned up without consultation.

Last summer, while unions were pleading for more time and Transport for London was still negotiating, Johnson blithely insisted the service would launch in September that year. You could be forgiven for thinking that the Mayor was desperate for the project to go ahead before he left City Hall. It would, after all, have been a great legacy for a man with greater ambitions.

Unions that had once expressed qualified support began to question to wisdom of the project altogether. “Millions of week-day commuters . . . risk seeing their safety compromised and their services reduced to chaos so that a few thousand revellers can be shipped home in the early hours of Saturday and Sunday morning,” the RMT union’s general secretary Mick Cash fumed. It was only after the second paralysing strike that Johnson began to say he was “not fussed” about the launch date.

“It seemed clear that there was a political element, with Boris Johnson wanting to play role of Maggie Thatcher and us being the miners,” says Finn Brennan, Aslef’s London Underground organiser. “And that was a battle that he lost. But his aim last year was quite clearly to provoke a dispute.”

Brennan says the project is “long overdue” and that, “a high quality service delivered by union professionals” is far preferable to relying on expensive, unlicensed and unregulated minicabs. “But there was certainly damage done to industrial relations on the back of it,” he adds.

Indeed, insiders told me last summer that the Mayor’s attitude had even alienated TfL bosses, who reportedly refused to put a new date on the launch for months despite immense pressure from Johnson. Some feared that with a new mayor taking over in May, the project had become so toxic it would be discontinued.

The final Night Tube pay deal struck between management and unions looked very similar to the original offer. The difference was that bosses had been forced to listen to workers’ own concerns, and agreed to explore a four-day week for drivers. “If Johnson hadn’t taken such a confrontational attitude last year, the service would be up and running long before, and without two days of strike action,” Aslef’s Brennan says.

Some still fear turmoil – particularly given that all-night running will mean less time for track repairs. With more work needing to be packed into fewer maintenance shifts, the impact of future strikes could be even greater.

But for now, we should probably thank the unions for having it out. A hugely beneficial service will launch without the resentment of the workforce and with vital preparation time not sacrificed for the sake of one man’s political ambition. But it should be a humble day for Boris Johnson. The Night Tube may be his pet project, but let’s not forget he came close to killing it off.

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