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Sydney Lenssen JLE under starter's orders

On Christmas Eve four Jubilee Line tube trains ran from Stratford in east London to North Greenwich and back, driven under their own power, controls and signals for the first time. Only fare paying passengers were missing. The Jubilee Line Extension project team and London Underground could not have had a better Christmas present.

'That's a massive milestone,' reckons David Waboso, JLE's commissioning manager and one of the few senior JLE project managers to survive the reshuffle last September.

'The system can be relied upon to separate trains,' he says.

'More important, we needed a boost to morale. Dozens in the team have been working like stink, only to get stick outside. Walk round the offices late at night and you find people still there. From the outside it looked the easy way out when we swapped from moving-block to fixed-block signalling, but that change was very late. But now at least we know we can run trains to the Dome.'

Another person in need of morale boosting is Denis Tunnicliffe, chief executive of London Transport. He was badly bullied on 26 November by the House of Commons Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport and its chairman Gerald Kaufman.

Tunnicliffe first appeared before the committee a year earlier, expressing confidence that the JLE would be open in September 1998 or shortly thereafter. When the time came, the best that he could do was to ask the MPs to have faith in the worldwide repute of Bechtel, which has staked its name on three phased openings in April, August and October 1999. Not surprisingly Tunnicliffe found himself on the back foot, struggling to explain why he wasn't prepared for questions on estimated out-turn costs, even apologising when asked unintelligible questions by his tormentors.

Today's reality is that most of JLE's infrastructure is in place. The stations, tunnels, tracks and power are all there, signalling and communications have been installed, and all the new trains have been run on the existing line. The bulk of what's left is the fit-out of stations and the integrating and testing of the train control and the station management systems, proving that they are safe and reliable.

Compliance involves JLE and its contractors satisfying themselves that they are getting what they ordered. The final hurdle, Proof of Safety, has to be gained from LU's own chief engineers and then from the independent Railway Inspectorate.

All these steps are subject to human moods, positive and negative. Nobody can guarantee a completion date. If the MPs can do better - parliamentary business never slips, does it? - offer to let them try!

Longer serving JLE team members now concede that commissioning and finishings do require different skills from those used earlier for design and construction. With 30 new faces, about a third of them American, all experienced, competent and ready to deliver from day one, Bechtel brings fresh legs.

The old team contained those who were oddly proud that by completion JLE will have taken longer than the Second World War. Perhaps they had grown to know each other too well, making allowances rather than rooting problems out.

At this stage it is much easier for Bechtel managers to bring a new approach. They can insist they need to get on, not keep examining what has gone wrong. Analysis paralysis has gone. All reporting to London Transport is channelled through project chief executive Clifford Mumm. The number of meetings has shrunk dramatically.

Building the JLE has been a long haul. It has been easy to focus on the obvious shortcomings and to knock the project. How different it will be when we can all see what has been created. You get a lot for £3bn plus.

My first resolution for 1999 is to wish luck and a speedy completion for the JLE project. At some stage, the project needs to be reviewed to identify its important lessons, hopefully not by a select committee. For now, everyone involved needs to be freed from recrimination and cheered on.

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