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Testing time for LU's Tube safety culture


Last week London Underground (LU) held a meeting of 'stakeholders' to discuss the safety of the Tube under the proposed £13bn privately financed upgrade programme. The meeting was attended by union officials, passenger groups, London politicians and the media and held as part of the process under which LU is hoping to get the safety case for its public private partnership proposal approved.

For me it was the first time LU had crystallised its commitment to maintaining and improving safety standards on the Tube under the PPP into a digestible form. But it also made me wonder just how sure we could ever be about the safety of the Tube under private control.

LU safety director Mike Strzelecki, a chartered civil engineer, gave an impressive account of the safety culture in the Tube, explaining how it was now operating to higher safety standards than risk assessments demanded. And despite the age of the system, the Tube sat alongside Hong Kong's more modern Mass Transit Railway with the best passenger safety records in the world.

For the record, LU currently averages 0.45 fatalities per 100,000 journeys, compared with 1.3 per 100,000 on the national rail network.

Strzelecki went on to explain the culture of restless selfimprovement in place on the Tube, a cuture of constantly analysing risks and attempting to eliminate or at least reduce them.

But of course the problem will be to instil this same culture within the PPP consortia that take over when contracts are finally awarded. LU will have the power to remove those who blatantly fail to measure up to its own safety standards, but getting contractors to adopt the same culture will take time, practice and experience - all of which LU has had in abundance in recent years.

Of equal concern is the potential for complacency. The LU legacy is likely to keep accident rates low early in the PPP term while contractors assimilate themselves to the culture. But there is a risk they will fail to immerse themselves in LU's way of thinking, and become exposed to unforeseen risks several years down the line.

LU managing director and chairman Derek Smith told last week's meeting that the risk of failing to live up to safety standards was also a major incentive for the private sector to deliver.

He referred to the numerous companies which had suffered heavy financial losses after failing to prevent accidents.

Whether this actually constitutes an incentive for contractors to perform better is debatable. But the fact remains that some major corporations have run risks in the past, and others no doubt continue to do so today. While their shareholders may suffer as a result, their pain is nothing to that endured by the victims of their disasters and their relatives.

LU has no doubt its homework on safety very thoroughly and has thought through its theory in advance of the PPP.

The major test will be putting this theory into practice, and ensuring that it does not have to wait for a tragedy to prompt it to sack one of its contractors.

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