It has been a tough few months for the new managing director of London Underground. Mike Brown, a company veteran who returned in March, faces his fourth strike over the axing of ticket office jobs in a matter of weeks.
Tube unions RMT and the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association say getting rid of 800 ticket office jobs will make stations dangerous. London Underground, which employs 12,500, say they want staff out on the stations rather than cooped up in offices. It adds that because of voluntary redundancies and unfilled posts over 500 of these jobs have gone already, and what the unions really are fighting is the modernisation of the 157-year-old network.
“I want staff to be more flexible, I make no apology for that,” says Brown in a surprisingly soft Belfast accent. “Every business in the country has to respond to new technology as it comes along. We will not run a service that is stuck in the 1960s. There is no alternative to modernisation.”
A resolute Brown is sitting in a small office next to the Tube’s network operations centre, where all of the systems’ 11 lines and 270 stations are monitored. It is on the first floor of the network’s art deco headquarters above St James’s Park station. The short, trim Brown is a little over six months into his second stint at the Tube, and he could hardly have come back at a more challenging time.
The network’s 30-year, £29bn public private partnership has collapsed after just seven years, leaving him to direct the necessary upgrades. Crossrail, the largest civil engineering project in Europe, must be smoothly integrated into his network. All of this must be managed after an eight per cent budget cut as a result of the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR). And one of the most powerful unions in the country has already shown that it is willing to strike if it does not like the change in working practices these new projects threaten. The next union stoppage is set for 29 November, though both sides are still in talks.
Brown says the Oyster card has “transformed” Tube travel in the same way the ATM has changed the way people get cash from their accounts.
He says: “How many people do you know who write a cheque to themselves and take that to a cashier in a bank? Not many. And with Oyster people have also moved on. They buy online or from kiosks. We can’t have people sitting in offices selling a few tickets every hour. Unions need to wake up to the reality of where we are right now. We are willing to listen to safety concerns. But the unions have not put a genuine safety issue on the table.”
Brown argues that he is making headway against the effects of the strike. During the third stoppage earlier this month he ran 50 per cent of the network, compared to 40 per cent of trains during the second walk out.
Unions have asked Mayor of London Boris Johnson to join the talks in a bid to break the deadlock. But Johnson has said he has no plans to reward “bad” union behaviour with “beer and sandwiches at City Hall.” Brown agrees: “I brief the Mayor every week. But it’s right that he leaves the talks to us.”
However, many Londoners feel that once this issue is settled another concern over modernisation will arise and both parties will be back to square one. And that RMT general secretary Bob Crow, who is popular among his members (but not the public) for winning them good pay and conditions, will again call out the Tube’s drivers on another strike.
Brown counters: “I’m more optimistic than that. I’m proud of the announcements our drivers make when things go wrong. I’m proud of the way our staff help the public in our stations. They understand changes have to be made.”
The Tube PPP was introduced in 2003 to finance much-needed upgrades to the network. And while £12bn has been spent in that time with some good station improvements carried out, Brown is clear the process failed to move quickly enough or take on the biggest challenges.
London Underground is now in charge of its rebuilding programme after it bought one of the two upgrade firms, Tube Lines, in June for £310m, after the company said it could not manage the next seven-and-a-half year tranche of work for the £4.46bn set by the PPP arbiter Chris Bolt. The other upgrade company Metronet collapsed in 2008, and had to be absorbed into London Underground at a cost of £2bn to the taxpayer.
Brown says: “There was some delivery under PPP. But there was little momentum on the large big ticket projects that will really make a difference to London.”
By this Brown means signalling. New stations and trains may look good, but “signalling is absolutely crucial to the network. It allows trains to run closer together, more frequently and adds capacity.”
This is what the PPP failed to deliver, says Brown. Now it has taken over from Tube Lines, he says, the signalling on the Jubilee Line, which will add 30 per cent capacity, will finally be ready by spring 2011, two years behind schedule.
Past signal testing on this line has performed poorly and Brown says part of the problem “is that we could never talk directly to the signalling company. We had to go through Tube Lines. Too often during the PPP we were reduced to the role of an interested observer.”
Brown adds that he is at the final tender stage for the signalling on the network’s three main sub surface lines – the Metropolitan, Circle and District lines. These lines also have 191 trains on order, a few of which will come into service before Christmas.
The Victoria Line has about half of its 40 new trains in service with the remainder coming in by the middle of next year, which will add 30 per cent capacity to the route.
Victoria station has begun a £700m refurbishment, which like the King’s Cross development, will open up the concourse and prevent overcrowding. The new Victoria station, which accommodates 91m passengers a year, will be completed in 2018.
Brown also wants to restart work on the Northern Line signalling early next year. He stopped work here in the summer after it bought Tube Lines because the early evening and weekend closures were causing too much passenger disruption. He is currently talking to local businesses about the best way to go forward and is studying if block closures may be less painful. Work on the Northern Line is set to start again in the first quarter of next year and be completed in 2018.
But whatever way you look at it the Tube will undergo another “eight or nine years” of major work says Brown.
The Tube boss says Johnson did “a fantastic job” fighting the case for London during the CSR. After extra borrowing from the markets and boosted fares, transport in the capital now faces an eight per cent cut of its £9.24bn annual budget. Brown is sure his department can make up this difference out of efficiency savings.
Crossrail will have its budget cut by £1bn to £15bn and will be completed a year later in 2018 as a result of the CSR.
Some critics are concerned that Crossrail’s interconnections with the Tube – at Farringdon, Bond Street and Tottenham Court Road – is where cash will be cut from the project, which in fact would lead to increased congestion rather than easing it. However, Brown is adamant that these vital connections will not be “descoped.” He says: “Crossrail and an upgraded Tube will ease congestion in London. But the two must come together, it is not an either or option.”
What is clear is that Brown will face a lot of hard choices over the next few years as the rebuilding of the world’s oldest Tube network, his duty to passengers and his relations with the unions pull him in different directions.
CV | MIKE BROWN
Work: Returned to London Underground as managing director in March 2010; managing director of Heathrow for BAA from 2008-2010; chief operating officer at London Underground from 2003-2008; works his way up the London Underground ranks from 1989-2003; joins London Underground as manager of Neasden cleaning depot in 1989; starts his career as a graduate trainee at Rank Hovis McDougall
Education: Queen’s University, Belfast, where he read economics; MBA
Family: Married, one son