An offer of a whole hour with Peter Hendy, Commissioner of TfL is not something that happens that often, so the offer of a “bloggers briefing” was quite an opportunity. As such, three of London’s scribes found themselves in a comfy office above the Transport Museum for actually rather longer than an hour of his views about where London Transport is heading.
Peter Hendy can be said to have London’s transport in his blood, having started his career in the public transport industry in 1975 as a London Transport graduate trainee. He ended up as Managing Director of CentreWest London Buses, which was later sold to a mangement buyout. He returned to TfL when Ken Livingstone was Mayor, and was appointed Commissioner of Transport for London at the begining of 2006.
Interestingly, he said he probably wouldn’t have returned to TfL if there hadn’t been a London Mayor in place. The benefits of having a Mayor (regardless of their politics) batting for the transport budget rather than negotiating with the central government is something that he found to be a very strong advantage of the Mayoral system.
The key issue we were there to talk about – as was mentioned at a previous bloggers briefing in 2008 – is the issue of communicating what is going on with the general public.
The public are tired, he suggested of the constant talk about upgrades and track closures as they have been going on for ages. In fact, thanks to the mess with PFI/PPP, much of the past 7 years has been in planning and preparation for the big upgrades, and it is only in the past couple of years that the works have really started in earnest.
He also wants to be better at communicating what is going on when things break-down. Saying “fault on the line” is just background noise to many people, and getting more detail would help explain why trains aren’t working in the rush hour.
I say the rush-hour, but the tube network is almost always in a rush hour now!
When Peter started at London Transport, if there was a problem in the morning, they could use the quieter period later in the morning to get the trains back to the right places and fix the fault. Today, there isn’t a quiter period at all.
Another issue about timing is that decisions have to be taken incredibly swiftly – you can’t spend 5 minutes to ponder a solution, you have to get on with it. Although I wonder if that understandable approach makes relaying information to passengers more difficult – as people are too busy fixing to explain what they are fixing. An interesting tension in the demands of swift repairs vs communicating.
An example is that the Victoria line runs at peak hours with more trains on the line than it has platforms. If you get a problem it is probably more important to ensure any fault doesn’t strand trains in the tunnels than to communicate what is causing the fault. But explaining afterwards is vital – and he is looking at how they can communicate more detailed facts rather than the generic “signal fault” type messages.
Incidentally, Peter Hendy was on the Victoria Line on Tuesday evening when some drunks pulled the passenger alarms – once for a real reason, and a few times for laughs. So, yes, he suffers the same problems the rest of Londoners have to put up with as well.
Going off on a tangent, when we talked about the replacement double-decker bus, one of the key requirements was that it is easy to clean. People tend to be drunk and have, what we might call, accidents on the buses at night. The older buses can be quite difficult to clean properly, and they smell.
The End of the PPP
Going back to the tube, now that the PPP/PFI is being cleared out, and TfL is getting more control back over the network upgrades, one thing they are looking at is the issue of “block closures”, such as the one planned for next August which will take out a part of the Circle/District Line. As an option though, while it is great for the engineers, it can only be carried out where there are viable alternatives or the stations are so close to each other that people could walk between them. So not that often then.
One thing that certainly came across was his intense frustration with the former regime, and how relieved he is that TfL is bringing the upgrade work back in-house.
We passengers should be grateful as well, as TfL is motivated to reduce closures – whereas the PPP suppliers had almost carte-blanche to demand closures when they wanted. As a long-suffering Jubilee Line customer, I can take some satisfaction that the other Lines wont be subject to the same disasterous upgrade we have had.
One initial change is that the company that gets the contract to replace the signalling on the Northern Line wont be allowed to close the line for testing – both old and new system will run in tandem. The Jubilee Line upgrade needed whole weekends of closures just to switch between the new and old system to test it. Argh!
However, having said that PPP was a disaster is not to say that it didn’t have some advantages.
For the private companies to take over, they needed to audit the assets owned by TfL, something which had not been done for a very long time. TfL finally knows what it owns! Another benefit has been a change in how people carry out procurement. A bit too often there was an attitude of bespoke design, rather than maybe seeing if something off-the-shelf could do the same job just as well. Attitudes from the days when TfL would design everything in-house got a rude awakening and now the company is far more open to outside suggestions about how to get things done.
Probably could have happened without PPP, but might have taken longer to achieve what is largely an attitude change in areas which are traditionally – with some justification – rather conservative in approach.
Although, one “off-the-shelf” item that can’t be used on the Underground are escalators. The units used in department stores and shopping centres are not designed to cope with builders hauling up sacks of rubble as they maintain a tube network overnight.
Talking about being more open-minded, one of the subsequent advantages of the post-PPP era is that the Picadilly Line upgrade is being rethought. Oddly, a delay in buying new trains for the Picadilly Line could end up being its greatest gain. Under the old scheme, the trains were to be ordered, frankly too soon. Now, they have time to think, and they are really thinking about a radical redesign for future trains on the Underground. The aim is for a train which is physically much lighter than current models, so they use less electricty to move, and as a very important benefit – dump less waste heat into the already hot tunnels.
While some works are going on to remove heat from the tunnels, it makes a lot more sense to try and cut how much gets into there in the first place. Also, if space permits, it is possible that the new trains would include air-cooling systems. Speculative, and a long wait to find out – but for once, a delay could end up being a very good thing.
For the Picadilly Line, PPP would have delivered the wrong trains, at the wrong time.
Talking of delays, many of the delays to network upgrades announced recently are nothing to do with cost cutting and all down to better deployment of the engineering resources. Likewise for the much heralded one-year delay in the completion of Crossrail, the original completion date, Peter bluntly admitted was never realistic.
On the issue of cost cutting, we get into contentious areas, where the glowering face of Bob Crow could be felt like an angry force within the room.
Peter Hendy was at some pains to say that the vast majority of the staff are sensible people, and it is understandable that if a union is bargaining for more goodies that the staff will jump on their coattails.
However, it seems that it is a quite small minority who drive these battles – which I suspect is supported by the ballot results, which increasingly show a minority of the electorate voting for strikes. He did seem frustrated by the political side of the unions. Bob Crow has said in the past that he is pushing a political agenda that goes beyond his actions as a union leader, but TfL is a state-owned, taxpayer subsidised integrated transport behometh. Surely that is what Bob Crow the politician is aiming for, so why all the strikes?
It was a sad irony that when I left the meeting, I saw that the RMT is calling for another strike ballot, this time on the DLR.
Obviously, the unions are right now fighting like mad to prevent 800 staff being cut from the stations. However, Peter noted that staffing numbers have gone in only one direction for the past decade – upwards. With the increased use of Oyster, and other automations on the network, something has to give way.
Interestingly, and he did express a bit of frustration that is isn’t that well known, the deal being offered to the unions includes a guarantee of no more job cuts until after the Olympics. I wasn’t aware of that, but now I am. And so are you.
However, while front line jobs will then be protected, there will be a lot of churn within the offices. This will be simply because people who worked on cancelled or delayed projects are let go, while people working on Crossrail and other projects are hired.
Long Term Planning
Although Crossrail was mired in endless delays before being finally approved and construction starting, one of the big changes that came from the London Mayor was the introduction of a Mayoral Transport Strategy. The first long term planning system since really the “golden age” of Ashfield and Pick.
Susprisingly, most of the intentions in Ken Livingstone’s original Transport Strategy did actually get carried out – and now we are into the second Transport Policy, that stretches into the next decade.
Obviously, having a plan and getting the cash to carry it out are two very separate things, but having a plan does make it a lot easier to brow-beat government into writing letters committing support.
Crossrail which famously took a couple of decades to build could get a sister line surprisingly swiftly though – with the development of the Chelesea-Hackney Line, or Crossrail 2 as it is sometimes known. While I knew wayleaving rights are still reserved, and renewed for the line as preparation just in case it is built, it seems that a National Rail project could make it almost mandatory.
The government is pushing ahead with the High Speed 2 railway, but if, as expected, Euston station is the London terminus, then the existing Underground services will never be able to cope with the concentration of arriving passengers.
HS2 makes Crossrail 2 mandatory. Indeed, they are already working on plans to adjust the presumed route to include Euston station. It’s worth noting that the construction of the Crossrail station at Tottenham Court Road already includes provisions for the interchange with CR2, just in case.
Long term planning – what a novelty!
That the future of Crossrail 2 lies in the development of a National Rail line brings us neatly on to the relationship with the National Rail lines that bring people into London, and it is evident that TfL would like more control over them.
The National Rail networks coming into London tend to work on a different strategy to that affecting the rest of London’s transport, and more integration would probably be a good thing. Another benefit is that the aforementioned Mayoral system is actually much better at arguing for cash from central government, so the Mayor having oversight could mean more upgrades. Maybe.
One thing though, overland rail services wont get permission to use the Roundel on their stations unless TfL gets management control. They really do see it as a sort of Kite Mark of quality that guarantees a minimum level of service. Peter is fairly sure customers don’t care which company provides the service, so long as the quality is consistent across the network.
Since TfL took over control of the old Silverlink services around North London, there have been massive changes across the network – not just in terms of investment, but in management. Some stations weren’t locked at night, leaving them open to vandals – and vagrants. The lack of staff on the Gospel Oak to Barking line meant lots of people never bothered buying tickets. All changed now.
There is also a benefit to National Rail of having an orbital railway as it can help reduce the pressure on the mainline terminus stations – another reason why more TfL control over the National Rail budget affecting the London area might lead to more strategic thinking about how the money is spent.
I think the word he used was “astonishing” when describing the bike hire scheme, and how commuters have taken to it is vastly grater numbers than had ever been expected.
It is however, some of the more intangible benefits that are interesting – how the bikes are changing cycling in general. Before, cyclists were sterotyped as lycra wearing couriers darting in and out of traffic with disdain, but the surge in people cycling in work or casual clothes does seem to be changing the aesthetic of cycling in London.
He is also quite sure that the fact that the bikes come fitted with lights, that work all the time is a major factor in how people feel comfortable in using them – although I am less convinced of their practical impact.
Although 25,000 journeys per day by Boris Bike will never have a real impact on the 4+ million tube trips every day, the bikes are a very visible change to the transport network in London.
A Magic Wand
AnnieMole of the Going Underground blog. who was also at the meeting asked, if he had a magic wand, what three things he would do.
He started by saying he wanted a better relationship with the unions so that both sides can work to keep TfL as an integrated transport company. He didn’t say it, but I personally suspect that if the Unions keep up their antics, the tax paying voter will – out of sheer frustration – elect a government/mayor with a mandate to smash the unions. The unions need to be aware of that, and I don’t think they are.
He also wanted more understanding from the public that the upgrades – and hence the weekend closures – have to be done. That is in part why he was talking to us, to explain why things have to get worse before they can get better.
And finally, he wanted to keep working to improve the staff communication, which he said had already massively improved over the past decade. I can certainly recall personal experiences of station staff that made me cringe in horror at how bad they could be. Today, I talk to the staff far less (maybe that’s we need less of them?), but I can certainly say there has been a strong injection of “customer care ethos” in there.
Oh, despite recent rumours, no comment on contracts being signed for mobile phones on the underground, although he personally would like to see coverage on the platforms.
Thanks to Peter for his time, which went somewhat over the one hour we had been allocated as he had to rush off to another interview.
He always reads London Reconnections, often reads AnnieMole, but hardly ever reads IanVisits. Oh :(
Other posts you migth find of interest:
- London Underground’s “secret” tube station
- Cooling the London Underground
- Transforming Aldwych Tube Station
- The strange appeal of walking through tube tunnels