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Denis Tunnicliffe

London Transport's new chief executive

For a man whose working life revolves around transporting the public beneath the streets of the capital, London Transport's new chief executive Denis Tunnicliffe has an unusually keen interest in flying - helicopters in particular.

But travelling fast by air has been an important part of his life, dating back from the time with the RAF Volunteer Force at University College, London, where he studied maths. He gained his commercial pilot's licence in 1966 at the Hamble College of Air Training and went on to start a 20 year career with British Airways.

Having flown VC10 and Boeing 747 aircraft, Tunnicliffe moved indoors to various management roles, eventually becoming director of marketing performance for BA. This is perhaps where his other keen interest, that of providing service to customers (or passengers as they were once called), was born.

After a brief spell as chief executive of the International Leisure Group, looking after Air Europe's fleet of 14 aircraft, he joined London Underground as managing director in 1988.

Tunnicliffe does not like to hang around. More than his predecessor Peter Ford, he is a man of action. At least, that is what Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott thinks.

While Tunnicliffe was managing director of London Underground he completely overhauled the way the business was run and, in the wake of the King's Cross fire, totally reorganised the management structure.

This meant going up against some of the most powerful unions left in the UK. Like any manager he does not want strikes - this week has showed how destructive they are to the capital - but he is not a man to walk away from a fight.

Prescott appointed Tunnicliffe as someone he could do business with in the run up to the election of London's mayor in 2001 and establishment of Transport for London, which will take over the running of the capital's transport network.

During this time Tunnicliffe must work out just how to implement Prescott's £7bn public private partnership investment programme for the Tube's much needed upgrade.

This is a plan which Tunnicliffe actually believes to be the second best solution, 'second best that is going to happen as opposed to a best solution that would never happen.'

He would have loved to have seen Prescott allow LT to raise its own cash and tackle the network's problems itself rather than handing over to the public sector.

'It is with deep sadness that we have to accept that no government has been able to make long term contracts with itself,' he says. This said, he is committed to any plan that he believes will help turn around the sorry state of the capital's transport system.

The challenge is tough. At the moment the Tube is too crowded and suffers from being unreliable and poorly maintained. Bus journeys are also prone to unreliability. And it is fair to say that for Tunnicliffe this is simply not good enough - for him, for Prescott or for the public.

Tunnicliffe has also been - and still is - particularly scathing of the catalogue of broken Government promises on funding during his time in charge of the Underground.

Although it is now able to generate cash, the Tube cannot and never will be able to survive without government funding. The current estimate for the maintenance backlog of £1.2bn could be just the tip of the iceberg.

Now in charge of the 18,000 staff at LT and sitting in front of a two year, £1bn spending plan - he seems excited about the challenge of the next few years. 'It's the first time we have ever been able to plan work more than one year ahead,' he proclaims. Tunnicliffe maintains that he is 'full of optimism as we round this corner. We have 96 weeks to alter the way in which public transport is provided in London.'

Antony Oliver

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