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Interview | Caroline Sheridan Transport for London

Tunnel after slab renewal

“My journey on the Tube will never be the same again,” says Caroline Sheridan, six months into her role as London Underground’s renewals and enhancements director.

From the moment she steps into a station, Sheridan questions everything.  Where do those cables lead to? What type of train is waiting at the platform? What kind of track is used?

“Is the track sitting on ballast, or is it sitting on concrete? And I’ve never even noticed it before,” she says.

Sheridan is new to the rail industry, having spent the last 15 years working her way up to become delivery director at Heathrow Airport Ltd. She left that post in October 2017, just as Heathrow’s third runway was given the government’s approval. It seems like a strange time to leave, but expansion will not begin for a few years and Sheridan is someone who likes to stretch herself.

“The things I really enjoyed in my last role at Heathrow were leading a team and driving change. And the role I do now is all about driving change.”

Tough times

Transport for London (TfL) is facing tough times. It will lose the last of its government funding, once worth £700M per year, from 2018/19, just as its deficit reaches almost £1bn. While chasing new income streams, the transport body is trying to revamp its culture to become safer, more reliable and more affordable. Is it possible to deliver world-class improvements to London’s transport network in such challenging conditions?

“It definitely is possible. It’s difficult, there’s no doubt about it,” says Sheridan.

Caroline sheridan lu director of renewals enhancements cropped

Caroline sheridan lu director of renewals enhancements cropped

Sheridan: Working on LU safety culture

“Will we be able to do everything everybody has ever dreamed of and wants to do on the Tube? No. So it is definitely going to be difficult and challenging, but it is possible.”

In renewals and enhancements, the focus is on improving workplace safety. While its sister division, the major programmes directorate, is used to working in the spotlight on its £250M-plus projects, renewals and enhancements keep the Tube network ticking behind the scenes.

One of the key parts in my role is driving improvements in the safety culture here

Work takes place “in the guts of the network”, says Sheridan, often during the day while trains are running close to the site. Despite the risks posed by live trains and traction currents, worn out track is replaced, signalling is upgraded and station improvements are made.

Most of the tasks are manual, with many workers operating in confined conditions. As a result, there are two injuries each week in renewals and enhancements, mostly as a result of avoidable slips, trips and falls.

Sheridan believes it does not have to be this way. “I think one of the key parts of my role is driving improvements in the safety culture here,” she says.

Mechanisation effort

A lot of effort is going into mechanisation to reduce workers’ exposure to risk. At the moment, some operatives carry large volumes of concrete down flights of stairs to get to site in an unnecessarily hazardous journey. Instead Sheridan would like to see concrete brought in by train.

A project is underway to automate some track work and reduce injuries. But any machine developed will not be rolled out across the network immediately. In the meantime, basic actions like keeping sites tidy can reduce the number of accidents.

Behavioural change is also needed. With better organisation and planning, Sheridan believes renewals and enhancements can become more efficient as well as safer.

I think natural bias has impacted the jobs I’ve had and how I’ve moved on

At the moment, workers feel the pressure to deliver quickly and minimise disruption for passengers, leading to risk-taking.

“It isn’t that I’m saying, ‘no, don’t deliver’. I’m absolutely saying we need to deliver. We absolutely can’t be the organisation that goes in and disrupts the operation. But we need to put safety as a core value at the heart of everything we do,” says Sheridan, adding there is a drive to increase accident reporting.

“The right thing to do is stop. If we’ve deviated from the plan or somebody’s not doing what they should be doing, stop. And that, in a delivery mindset, is quite hard, but we want people to say, ‘don’t walk past it: report it’.”

On a recent project to replace a section of Metropolitan line track (pictured), engineers developed ways to streamline processes rather than push work through quickly to hit deadlines.

Tunnel renewal work

A poor drainage system in the affected tunnel was making maintenance work difficult. As a result, the base of the track had  to be replaced as well as a section of the track itself, meaning the concrete had to be poured and track laid during engineering hours. To maximise the work which could be done during those hours, a specialised concrete mix was used which gains strength much quicker than usual mixes. Sheridan believes that saving time on site allowed teams to focus on safety. “Not only have they improved their productivity, their reliability, their safety performance has improved also,” she says. She describes her renewals and enhancements operation  as a project delivery division. Some of the work is managed completely in-house with London Underground acting as client, designer, engineer and contractor, but other work relies on the supply chain.

Next year she is looking to invest £350M in the network. Opportunities for suppliers are growing: London Underground will be on the lookout for a track delivery partner this spring or summer after its contract with Balfour Beatty comes to an end. TfL is trying to simplify the way it engages with its supply chain in a bid to attract the best companies to the organisation. It is also looking to listen to suppliers more “rather than being the client that tells them how to do it,” says Sheridan.

But there is one problem. Safety is not always perceived as being the number one priority.

Responsive suppliers

“I wouldn’t in my previous roles expect to almost drag the safety conversation out of the suppliers; it would be immediately first, suppliers leading. At LU it is not always the same, but suppliers here are very responsive to what we’ve asked in the past,” says Sheridan.

“I know that a lot of the suppliers have already got very mature behavioural and safety cultures within their organisations. They just need to bring it in [to their TfL work].”

Warm and unguarded, Sheridan is unafraid of speaking her mind. She is refreshingly forthcoming about the day-to-day challenges of being female in the construction industry; although she remembers feeling “quite excited” about having her own site bathroom in the early stages of her career, she also recalls the pressure of being the only woman on site.

“I believe it has been harder for me,” she says.

“I don’t think people have deliberately discriminated, but I think natural bias has impacted the jobs I’ve had and how I’ve moved on.”

She is keen to stress TfL’s zero tolerance policy towards discrimination is “fantastic” and gives it a “more positive outlook” from the top down. But overall, the construction industry has a long way to go. “I think it’s unbelievable that in 2018 we’re still talking about it,” she says.

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