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Not as good as it gets

London Underground managing director Tim O'Toole expects much more from his private partners on the Tube upgrade. And he'll insist they deliver it, reports Antony Oliver.

Eighteen months into his job, London Underground (LUL) managing director Tim O'Toole has developed a pretty clear picture of life on the Tube. And he has an even clearer view of how he expects it to be.

He pulls few punches when analysing the performance of Metronet and Tubelines - the private maintenance contractors, or infracos, responsible for maintaining the Underground under the £4bn public private partnership (PPP).

'There are some good things - they have got the trains clean and some elements of performance have improved, especially in the most troublesome fleets. That is good and they deserve credit for it, ' he says.

'In other areas they have made marginal improvements - lost customer hours as a result of track defects, for example, has gone down somewhat.' However he is clear that in areas such as controlling signal failure and improving track condition there has not been enough progress. It is for these that he reserves most of his criticism.

'They are making profits and I'm glad, ' he says. 'I want to know that there is free board to do a better job. If they weren't making money this would be as good as it gets. And if this was as good as it gets then I think London would be pretty disappointed.' O'Toole is a former executive of American railway company Conrail, recruited by LU to take on this somewhat poisoned chalice. Yet he maintains that he has always tried to distance himself from the ideological debate over the right or wrongs of the PPP.

'I'm not interested in trashing the structure - I'm here because of the structure, ' he says.

Consequently, he tells it just as he sees it, warts and all, with passion, enthusiasm and a direct American turn of phrase.

And as far as he is concerned, the infracos still have some big work to do: they have either got to bring forward major renewals programmes or start to invest in heavy maintenance to get more reliability into the system.

'As I said, I'm glad they are making money - if they weren't we would all really be in trouble, ' says O'Toole. 'But my point is that since they are benefiting from the business model it is their obligation to defend it.

The way to defend it is showing the public and government noticeable change.' O'Toole is also consciously driving LUL towards accepting ownership of the PPP project and taking a more active role in managing the contracts. This means working more closely with the private contractors.

Every day, O'Toole hosts a conference call with the infracos to go over the previous day's work and to help plan and prioritise future work.

'The idea is to spur them into making the right decision, to find out if there is something we can do to improve their ability to solve the problem more quickly, ' explains O'Toole. 'It is designed to help make them successful - we have got to get this investment in the ground and that means much more active involvement.' That said, O'Toole pulls few punches when it comes to pulling the contractors up for their failings. The number of times engineering overruns interrupt the morning rush hour gets him highly animated.

And his animation reaches new levels when responding to complaints from the infracos about not having enough time to work efficiently during engineering hours.

'This was the deal that they cut and it was priced at these outrageous margins to support that inefficient working, ' he explains. 'It isn't an insight for them now to say 'Gosh, this certainly is inefficient'. Well no kidding! That's why you're getting paid all this money.' He maintains that the problems stem from the infracos now realising that the work is harder than they thought. 'The ingenuity that they were counting on is perhaps not showing itself and they aren't able to get the work done, ' he says.

LUL has, he insists, attempted to expand the amount of time available through station closures and weekend working and has invited proposals for line closures.

Metronet has had public discussions over the possible blockade of the Waterloo and City Line. More recently Tubelines has submitted an outline proposal for future closures on sections of the Northern Line.

'You haven't seen any so far, and why not-' he asks. 'Well maybe because [the contractors] don't have any major trackwork planned right now, ' he says, in answer to himself.

But for all his criticisms - and there are many - O'Toole stresses that the next five years ahead of the first periodic review will see him pushing hard to help the contractors to deliver more.

'It isn't my job to prove that they are going to fail, it is my job to help them to be successful because I'm convinced that if this thing doesn't work I will also be run out of town.' He says it is inevitable that the review period will involve changes but that he is more interested in helping to create greater productivity and so more investment in the Tube, right now.

'It isn't just about complaining.

It's about engaging them in discussion. They are not bad people. It's about focusing their minds in areas where you can help each other get things done, ' says O'Toole. 'There are things to fix - it can get better.' O'Toole believes that enabling LUL to take a more active role in the process is the key to driving forward the improvements.

'We need to be more active on the property and not just receive reports, ' he says. 'I think that we have all come to the conclusion that the risk will always be ours - we run the trains, we deal with the people - we shouldn't be shy about offering suggestions and we are doing that.' This is particularly important when you consider the volume of work also planned outside the scope of the PPP. He rattles off a few examples - the new White City underground depot, Heathrow Terminal Five, Wembley Park station, Victoria Station expansion, Bank Station improvements, Tottenham Court Road station rebuild.

'Any one of these would be the project of the year, ' says O'Toole. 'We need engineering resources to ensure these are done correctly.' He has already started a revamp of the engineering department by hiring project management and systems integration expert David Waboso to head up the division. An expanded division will follow to drive the growing workload.

'People took (the PPP) deal thinking that was all the money there would ever be, ' he explains. 'We actually live in a very different world and the PPP was not exactly crafted to facilitate more money - more projects - coming in.' LUL has engaged three new framework engineering partners for £1bn of new work outside the PPP (News last week). More are likely to follow as the workload increases.

In the next five years ahead of the periodic review of the PPP, O'Toole says he will make it work and do whatever it takes to bring about more improvements.

'I want to accelerate the improvements, and I want the public and politicians to acknowledge real change taking place, ' he says. 'At the review I want people to say 'these guys have done a hell of a job - yes, lets put money in and let's put in more'. I don't want people to say let's skinny this down.'

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