I've just had the improving experience of writing a news piece for the Guardian's politics site. It's about Ken and Boris's great bust up over the cost of bus conductors. What I filed is below, but what will appear on the site before too long (I hope) is punchier and makes more of Team Boris's displeasure with Transport for London's costings of their man's Super Duper New Routemaster plan. It is now more apparent to me than ever that we commentator/feature writer types are a bunch of self-indulgent fops who need a bit of cold steel up us. Will link to the post-edit version when it appears. For now, here's my more leisurely original:
"A dispute over the cost of bus conductors has grown into a row on a wider front between the two leading candidates for London mayor, with Ken Livingstone’s campaign accusing Tory candidate Boris Johnson of “lacking in competence” and Johnson’s team questioning the political neutrality of Transport for London.
The dispute began last Wednesday after Johnson told BBC Radio London’s Vanessa Feltz that a new generation of the famous Routemaster buses he plans would be equipped with conductors, and that “it would cost eight million quid to have conductors on each of those buses, per year.”
The following day Livingstone, who chairs the TfL board, argued on the same programme that the figure for conductors would be nearer £80 million. His campaign website later put this at £70 million but went on to claim that the total cost of introducing a new style Routemaster fleet - with which Johnson hopes to replace Livingstone’s controversial “bendy buses” – would be £110 million. But at the launch of his transport manifesto on Monday, Johnson confirmed that he was standing by his £8 million figure for conductors.
After both sides had provided it with their calculations The Guardian asked TfL for the information necessary to make its own judgement of Johnson’s plan. It was provided with estimated costs for putting this fully into effect, which were largely in line with the Livingstone campaign’s assessment of the whole new Routemaster plan and sharply at odds with Johnson’s regarding conductors. TfL put this at £49 million – over six times Johnson’s figure - if existing passenger capacity on London’s twelve “bendy bus” routes was to be maintained. It also estimated that the total cost would be £112 million a year. It says this would mean roughly a 15 percent rise in bus fares on all routes. The Livingstone team puts it at 15-20%.
Invited to respond to TfL’s material, Johnson’s team issued a statement re-asserting that its £8 million figure for conductors was correct, saying that there were “serious flaws” with TfL’s analysis and accusing it of being “highly mischievous.” TfL “should not be a political organisation,” the statement continued, “and we would question how appropriate it is for them to be producing figures that are being used as political attack weapons.”
The suggestion that a body described on the Greater London Authority website as “accountable to the Mayor and responsible for delivering the Mayor's Transport Strategy,” had effectively been engaged in advancing his political strategy too is consistent with criticisms that, under Livingstone, mayoral aides and other elements of the mayoral apparatus have crossed a similar line.
The discrepancy between TfL’s calculation of the cost of bus conductors for Johnson’s putative “21st Century Routemaster” fleet and Johnson’s own arises from different methods used to calculate them. Using information provided by the mayor to the London Assembly [last May], Johnson’s campaign had deduced that the wage presently paid to conductors working on the only two remaining Routemaster routes – known as “heritage routes” - is £24,600 a year and multiplied this by 337, this being the number of bendy buses operating in London according, they say, to Ken Livingstone’s own figures. This produced a total of £8,290,000.
However, TfL pointed out that very few of the old Routemasters work the two “heritage” routes: four an hour and between 9.30 a.m. and 6.30 p.m. only. By comparison, the bendys operate high frequency services on some the capital’s busiest routes, of which a number work right through the night. They said that there are 399 bendys, of which a maximum of 350 are required to be on the roads at any one time. To staff them takes, according to TfL, “roughly three drivers per bus to work a 20 hour day, seven days a week.” The number of conductors would have to be the same.
Tfl also emphasised that bendy buses can carry more passengers – up to 149 - than a modern double decker’s 90 and the old Routemaster’s maximum of 69. Its view was that if it was assumed that any new, “21st Century” Routemaster could carry as many passengers as a modern double-decker, 620 such buses would be needed to replace the 399 bendys, with a maximum of 560 being out on the road at the same time.
Such an enlarged fleet would mean taking on still more conductors as well as additional drivers. TfL estimated that a total of 1,736 conductors would have to be hired at around £28,000 per year if add-ons such as national insurance and pensions were included, together with an extra 651 drivers at £35,000 per year making staffing a new Routemaster fleet cost at least £72 million more than the present fleet of bendys. It also theorised that the cost of new buses would be £40 million a year, meaning that Johnson’s scheme would coast £112 million in all.
All these estimates are sharply disputed by the Johnson team, which emphases that their policy envisages a competition for designing a new Routemaster, rendering any projections based on the capacities of existing buses and contracts with bus companies meaningless. They add that, in any case, they wouldn’t “purge 330-odd bendy buses in one swoop,” and that their replacements would be introduced over time. This, they say, makes their £8 million figure accurate for “any initial first wave” of new Routemasters. They anticipate great interest from bus manufacturers.
The discrepancy between the Livingstone camp’s latest estimate of the cost of conductors and that of TfL is explained by the former using a much higher figure for the cost of each one. They put this at £40,000 - £25,000 plus “add-ons” that might also include the cost of recruitment and providing uniforms. The Johnson team says this contradicts what Livingstone told the Assembly. A spokesman for the Livingstone campaign thought the TfL figure of £28,000 “seems low,” but asserted that the TfL figures “have to be taken as definitive,” showed that “our analysis is fundamentally correct” and Johnson’s to be “completely ridiculous.”
UPDATE: Here's the Guardian version, as promised.