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Now the money is in, where is LU's plan?

For years London Transport has put together an annual wish list of maintenance and improvement projects. Each year it is presented to the public as vital to the long term viability of London's transport network.

And each year the Government has failed to come up with the necessary cash grants to supplement LT income, so the list remains a wish. Shortsighted, it will cost more in the long run, ruining a national asset, come the outraged cries.

Except this year.

In March Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott announced that an extra £365M, taking LU's budget for the next two years to £1bn, will be spent on the Underground. This will be new investment in the two years before the private sector is brought in to finance and manage the upgrade of the Tube's ageing infrastructure (NCE 26 March).

Surely this was answer to London Underground's prayers - a guaranteed £1bn budget for two years, extra money and a sign that at last someone from the Government was interested?

It is strange then that two months later LU does not seem to know exactly what it will spend the money on. It has an idea and some priorities, but much of its thinking still looks pretty hazy. It would appear that LU is now close to accepting that it will have to sideline many high priority tasks in favour of quick fix and painting jobs (NCE 9/16 April).

In a bizarre turn of events last week, new chief executive Denis Tunnicliffe, development director David Bailey and finance director Tony Sheppeck gathered together London's media to explain where the cash was coming from and how they planned to spend it. The only problem was that they did not seem to know.

The three executives were asked how the £1bn was broken down - a fair question considering the size of the number. How much of this cash is new? It is known that £100M was carried over from last year's budget and that of Prescott's £365M some £65M has been earmarked for developing the public private partnership contracts for long term infrastructure improvements and is not included in the extra allocation.

Excluding the £65M, this adds £400M to the planned budget. It is still unclear where the remaining £600M of new money will come from over the next two years.

Sheppeck first indicated that this kind of detail was not at his fingertips. When pressed for an answer he eventually pointed out that the £1bn was roughly made up of around £500M in operating surplus and £500M in government grants. The answer certainly adds up to £1bn but leaves us none the wiser as to exactly how these amounts are arrived at.

Last year LU generated a gross operating margin of £264.7M, according to its annual report, published last week. So to produce a £500M operating surplus over the next two years is achievable even if operating surpluses remain static.

To get to the £500M from Government to make up the £1bn would require government grants of £50M a year on top of Prescott's £365M - compared to the £88M it received last

year and the £116M it received the year before. The Government appears to be cutting the grant cash LU will receive as Prescott's extra 'one off' money is fed in.

Asked how LU was going to spend its £1bn, Bailey struck out confidently with a list of works and the expected spending - 'stations £140M, escalators and lifts £80M, civil engineering packages £130M, track works £160M, signalling £70M, new trains £130M, solving the year 2000 computer problem £15M, and some other smaller projects.' A great list, all vital and long overdue.

But it only adds up to £725M - unless £275M is to be spent on the 'other smaller projects'. And if so, what are they? The body language of those hosting the briefing did not suggest that

the answers were entirely worked out. They seemed annoyed that anyone had bothered to add the figures up.

The fact is that LU was going to have around £700M to spend over the next two years anyway. The answers given last week suggest that LU is now struggling to find ways of spending its

extra cash despite clamouring for extra money for the last decade or so.

Perhaps this is unfair. £1bn is a big number and it is clearly impossible to nail everything down to the last penny. And Bailey did point out that some of the unaccounted-for cash was tied into various PFI projects still in procurement and that there were a number of other special projects on-going. So maybe the numbers do add up.

But if London Transport is to present a credible face to government and to its potential private sector partners it needs to demonstrate an ability to react quickly to surprise handouts from the politicians it lobbies so hard.

Antony Oliver

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