Will London’s Tube woes spread to Colombia?

The Transmilenio bus rapid transit system in action in Bogotá (image: University of the Andes)

This week, according to Colombian news outlet El Nuevo Siglo, a team from Transport for London will be in the Colombian capital Bogotá to share knowledge and expertise about their transport network. It’s part of an initiative run by University College London (my old uni, as it happens) and the University of the Andes in Colombia.

The TfL team, whose employer of course manages the London Underground, have picked an interesting time to visit. The city government of Bogotá is in the very midst of trying to nail down how it is going to build the city’s first metro line. Bogotá has already tried cheaper, simpler public transport systems. It was pre-eminent in launching the Transmilenio, the first ever proper bus rapid transit system in Latin America, under which buses enjoy dedicated lanes and large, station-like bus stops channelling passengers in.

But as you can see from the above picture, Transmilenio can’t cope with the volumes of people that want to get across the city, while car traffic is still king. Hence the need for a metro. Metro trains are bigger than buses, more fuel efficient and because they move quicker, you can have greater frequency, which increases capacity even more.

Anyway, what’s really interesting about TfL’s trip is it comes at a time when Bogotá is considering paying for the cost of building its first metro (estimated at US$2.5 billion) with private finance, as a public-private partnership – but hasn’t committed itself to it yet.

Transport for London infamously had PPP projects forced on it in the late 1990s by the then deputy prime minister John Prescott, as the only way central government would pay for the maintenance of Underground lines.  The multi-billion contracts placed the whole Tube network in the hands of three private consortia responsible for their upkeep and upgrade. They would be repaid from public funds, subject to meeting performance targets.

One by one, each consortium proved wanting. Metronet went bankrupt in 2007 after being unable to pay its £1.7 billion of debt, which had to be paid off by the Department for Transport instead. A subsequent report found it guilty of mismanagement. Tube Lines asked for £327 million of extra cash because of delays upgrading the Jubilee and Northern lines, despite it being responsible for cost overruns; this as rejected and five months later, the shareholders sold the project company to TfL. Since then, it’s emerged that the cost of work under the PPP more than doubled while the deadline for completion receded.

TfL is now anti-private finance; it believes that it is too expensive, too complicated and doesn’t deliver the promised benefits. That’s why TfL lobbied successfully to kill the plan to build the Crossrail trains under a PPP. It’s not alone: elsewhere, procuring authorities have decided that big urban rail projects are a bit too complicated and costly to entrust to private finance. PPP has been discounted for the Mecca mass transit system, and may be scrapped for the mammoth US$10 billion-plus Kuwait metro project as well. Part of the trouble with urban rail projects is the difficulty of tunnelling in a space with lots of things already in the ground and the need to interface with so many competing organisations.

It would be interesting to know, then, if the TfL team intend to share their fraught experiences of disentangling and shutting down privately financed contracts in London with their counterparts in Bogotá. The World Bank recently green-lit funding for the technical studies, so once they’re done, they’ll want to draw up tendering documents. At that stage, they’ll need to know exactly how it will be paid for.

P.S. A more geographically close comparator for Bogotá would be the Lima metro. This was originally kicked off in the 1980s but left incomplete and abandoned for years before the first line was finally finished off in 2011. Now Lima has launched procurement of a second line, as a PPP, estimated to cost US$5.4 billion.


About René Lavanchy

You can contact me at rene dot lavanchy at googlemail dot com.
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