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Interview | Planning for the kids’ inheritance

David Waboso

David Waboso shares what London Underground has learned about how to make life easier for engineers in the future.

”I often wonder if the pioneers of the Tube had any idea exactly how important it would be in shaping London for centuries to come. Or that it would pioneer the metro concept that now sees cities all around the world investing billions in creating their equivalent of the Tube.”

So reflects David Waboso, who, as capital programmes director for London Underground, is responsible for leading the £1.5bn annual Tube Upgrade Programme - the largest in the company’s history. He currently manages a team of over 3,000 colleagues and a supply chain of 20,000 people, delivering on investments that make a difference to millions of Londoners each day. It’s of the most high profile, challenging engineering jobs in the country.

And he’s proud of the Tube; after all it’s a network which really has stood the test of time.

”The Victorians did an absolutely fabulous job of making their infrastructure so robust that even today we’re building on it and expanding it,” says Waboso. ”Though one thing I wish they’d done is make those small tunnels just a bit wider because it makes working in them difficult and we have to make our trains so much smaller than everyone else’s.”

So what should today’s railway builders do to make sure subsequent generations look back with similar gratitude at the legacy we’ve left for them?

“Designing our systems for efficient maintenance throughout the 40 plus years of asset life is hugely important, so identifying first-cost investments that minimise subsequent operational cost is vital,” states Waboso.

”A strong focus on reliability and standardisation of equipment is also very important given the 40 plus year asset life,” he says. ”Being able to use kit that’s got a long pedigree elsewhere means you build on the de-bugging and reliability growth that others have invested in, rather than being the prototype. Where we do have to start with new kit, we’ve placed explicit requirements on reliability being proven off-site,” he explains. ”New systems now come with in-built intelligence so a bit of imagination and innovation can deliver huge benefits in remote monitoring and prediction of failures such that maintainers can actively intervene to stop failures in service.”

There is no better example of innovation than the Victoria line which was the world’s first automatic line. Like the Jubilee and Northern lines, it has been renewed with modern digital signalling technology. The trains and their on-board computerised signalling operate at world-class levels of reliability, with trains and infrastructure transmitting their “health” status back to maintainer’s depots.

Which, says Waboso, is impressive stuff. ”Imagine trying to tell people over 150 years ago that as well as trains running underground, they’d be controlled automatically by computers and transmit their operational condition to far-away locations,” he enthuses.

When work has to be done, planning ahead is ever more important.

”It’s becoming harder and harder to shut down sections of the railway to upgrade our network, given the huge demand for 24/7 operations,” explains Waboso. “So planning ahead and creating resilience for upgrade work to be carried out will pay huge dividends. New York’s metro, for example, has two tracks in each direction so whilst they carry out upgrade work on one track, they can keep moving passengers on the other.”

And then there’s technology.

“Looking back to the early designers of the Tube, I have nothing but huge admiration for how resilient and enduring the railways have been,” says Waboso. ”We’ve been able to take their legacy and re-engineer it with modern technology that they couldn’t possibly have foreseen, whilst keeping it pretty much fully available.

“That we’ve managed to do this on such an old infrastructure is testament to their forward vision,” he says.

“But looking ahead at future technology, while it’s really hard to predict the next ten years let alone the next 100, I’m confident that further innovations in automation and robotics, as well as communications and personal devices, will be at the centre of the continued drive for ever more capacity and reliability,” he says.

But technology alone will not solve the capacity need and for Waboso “upgradeability” should be a core requirement of all future projects.

“Experience tells us that from day one the “M25 effect” takes place as transport investments generate huge regeneration and growth, attracting yet more demand,” he says. “That’s why they tend to have such strong business cases.”

And stations must be designed for the future too.

”It’s hard to think that the Jubilee line stations were once seen as too big but look at them now,” urges Waboso. “We need to design for capacity for 50 or even 100 years on.”

And then there is accessibility. “The Victorians did not design the Tube with the needs of mobility impaired customers in mind. We are now doing a great deal of work to make our network more accessible, but it’s extremely difficult and expensive to add step free access to some of our older stations. So keeping accessibility at the forefront of future designs is a necessity,” says Waboso.

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