The wrong line from London to Caracas

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To anyone who understands transport in London, there was something odd about Tuesday’s announcement by Ken Livingstone, the populist mayor, that he had struck a deal with Venezuela’s national oil company to cut 20 per cent off the fuel bill for London’s buses.

Mr Livingstone – who said he would use the saving to give London’s poorest people half-price public transport – does not own or operate a single bus. Instead, Transport for London, his transport authority, will receive cash equivalent to 20 per cent of the fuel bill of the private companies TfL contracts to run its buses. That should more or less make up for the lower fare revenue TfL will receive from the operators.

Mr Livingstone has described the ascent of Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s radical populist president, as “the best news out of Latin America in many years”. But this deal’s convoluted structure prompts questions about how Red Ken will handle his other dealings with Venezuela.

Citizen Ken has promised TfL will return Petróleos de Venezuela’s largesse by providing advice on Venezuela’s transport system. Will the advice from Peter Hendy, London’s sensible transport commissioner, reflect the radical flights of leftwing political fancy to which Mr Livingstone is still sometimes given? Or will it reflect the pragmatism that he and TfL pursue when dealing with day-to-day issues?

TfL could certainly explain the importance of a strong, co-operative relationship with the private sector. TfL ensures good-quality bus services by contracting private companies to run routes then paying them according to how punctually they run, how clean the buses are, and other measures.

Officials could also quietly admit that the London Underground public-private partnership – which Mr Livingstone opposed but now seems to accept as a fact of life – has made improvements in some areas, even if other areas are still a mess.

They could give advice on running a bidding competition to find private operators for surface train services, as TfL is doing. Or they could outline the market-based principles that have made the central London congestion charge a success.

Yet since under Mr Chávez Venezuela has nationalised many foreign-owned oil assets and is currently seizing foreign-owned telecoms and utilities companies, that reasonable, practical advice might go down badly.

TfL’s press office cannot say what other help it could give, beyond suggesting it might help to provide Caracas, the capital, with good traffic lights. That should be more useful to the Venezuelan authorities than advice on tactful handling of critics. While TfL has to soak up visceral opposition from the Evening Standard, London’s evening paper, Mr Chávez can use more direct means; in December he announced he was revoking the licence to broadcast of the most vocal opposition TV station, RCTV.

The writer is the FT’s transport correspondent

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