Tube boss answers your questions
The man responsible for keeping 3.4 million of us on the move through the capital every day hears your concerns about pricing, security and all those free papers
Tim O'Toole © Rob Greig
Time Out: Why is the tube one of the most expensive underground systems in the world?If you have an Oyster card, you won’t experience a great fare increase. The cash fares are high because we want people to move on to Oyster, which is a more efficient way to collect revenue and more convenient for people. Over the longer term, tube fares have gone up at about RPI (Retail Price Index) plus one, which – if you consider the mass building programme we are undergoing – is actually a fairly moderate increase. Fares have been historically high because we do generate the coverage of our costs at the fare box; that’s a long-term political decision.
Isn’t it unfair to visitors who don’t have Oyster cards?We’re finding that the only people who pay that cash fare are people who have more money than sense. It’s people in the City who just make an occasional journey. Visitors tend to buy travel cards. Having said that, we do need to find ways to get Oyster cards for visitors so we’re trying to come up with new initiatives, such as advanced fare machines where you can buy an Oyster card without going to a window.
So once everyone’s got an Oyster the fares wont go up?It’s the Mayor’s decision and he makes it in light of government funding. I hope fares are not going up in the near future. My only caveat is that we are in a long-term building programme and fares will always be an ingredient in paying for that.
Are we safer on the tube now than before 7/7?The tube remains an extremely safe environment. But since 7/7 we have delivered more CCTV cameras. At the time of 7/7 we probably had 6,000, we’re well above 8,000 now and we’re heading towards 12,000. We have continued our deployment of British Transport Police. Years ago, when I started here, we had about 430. We now have 678. We are continuing to pursue technology which we may use someday; most recently we ran an investigation into air flow at St John’s Wood [in case of chemical attack]. But with more than a billion people being moved a year, it isn’t possible for us to employ the kind of vetting devices you’d see in an airport. It’s highly unlikely metal detectors will be introduced. I am confident we are employing the best practices but it’s an open system which means it will always remain vulnerable. But statistically you stand more chance of being struck by lightning than facing a security problem on the underground.
What are you doing to alleviate overcrowding?This is the big issue. The only solution is the rebuilding that will deliver new signal systems and new trains. We will be delivering the first major new initiative in that regard on the Jubilee Line in 2009. We’ll then follow on the Northern and Victoria Lines. Then we’ll introduce a new sub-surface fleet which will be the first one to be air conditioned. We’ve got to stay with CrossRail [a new line to open in 2009 that will connect Paddington to the City and link up Heathrow, Canary Wharf, Berkshire and Essex] that’s where the political tension has to be focused. Also, the delivery of Thameslink will help relieve congestion. We’ve also got plans to extend the Bakerloo south. There’s some interesting ideas involving Hackney and the south-east, but we’ve got a long way to go before we get there. First we must rebuild the underground we have, second we must deliver CrossRail. The challenge for us will be to keep London moving over the next five or six years. It’s a challenge for passengers to recognise change is coming, but it takes time, and it’s a challenge for the government. We can’t get wobbly on the funding. The price of not rebuilding is not the service you see now, it is something worse because it will begin to degrade given the extreme use it’s being put to.
You seem to doubt the government. Is it committed to investment?I hope so. I’m going to keep on reminding all of us that we are in this together. It’s not just the trains that need changing, we need to rebuild the stations, too: Victoria, Tottenham Court Road, Bank and Bond Street stations all need work. It’s a system that was perceived as the greatest in the world at one time and there’s no reason why we can’t get back to that.
Will it be up to scratch for the 2012 Olympics?We will have brought in the new Jubilee Line; we will increase the electricity power available to the Central Line to sustain a higher frequency service for a longer time; we will have rebuilt every single station with modern CCTV cameras; have aids for the visually and hearing impaired; there will be step-free access to more than 25 per cent of the network; and we will be into the new air-conditioned trains. It could be a very different underground from what you see now.
Why is it so hard to install decent air conditioning?Air conditioning is a heat exchange. If you take the heat out the train you are going to dump it in a tunnel, and if it’s a deep-level tube you have to have some way to extract that heat. We have the chiller test going on at Victoria Station [a pilot involving water pumped in from a nearby underground river, which cools the hot air. The heated water is then pumped out into the Thames]. We are about to commence the construction of a bore hole that could be used to provide cooling at a deep-level station. We’re also seeing if we can cool the new Jubilee Line trains, and we’re rejuvenating all the fans throughout the network that have been allowed to fall into disuse. But ultimately we have to find money for improvements.
Why is it a good thing to be able to use mobiles underground?You can already use your mobiles on 60 per cent of the system. It is the ultimate fall-back safety device. I’m not especially looking forward to the day when you’ll have a cacophony of people talking on their mobiles underground, but we are going to trial it on the Waterloo and City [in April 2008]. I still think this is light years away.
What has happened to the promise of later hours?We couldn’t justify paying what the unions were asking. We’ll bring late-night running in when those negotiations are concluded.
Will we ever see a 24-hour service?No, never. We have a single track. New York does it because it has a four-track system.
What are you doing about the mass of free papers dumped all over the trains?They cause a great deal of litter and make things look shabby. The infracos [the private sector companies who manage the tube under PPP] are contracted to clean them up and they’re running fairly aggressive recycling programmes. The difficulty is that we can’t limit what people bring with them on the trains. We just have to deal with the consequences of this paper war that is being waged.
Can you assure us that London transport is in safe hands in light of the recent revelations about its drinking culture?I wouldn’t call it a drinking culture. It’s a very sad story about Mr Kiley. I’m sorry that happened to him. But Londoners can judge the management of LU based on what they’ve seen lately and what they’ve seen is a management and employees who responded to probably the greatest challenge since the Second World War, in the challenge of 7/7. When Londoners reflect on what we are able to do with such old assets, I’m sure they have faith in us. As to whether Bob Kiley does ‘nothing much with his time’, I couldn’t say much about that. It’s a relationship that’s handled by TfL.
Do you use the tube?The tube is the only way I go. I don’t own a car. I’m one of the more avid users of the tube. Am I ever late for work? I’m so used to the many different ways you can go, so if there are delays I’ll find a different route. My favourite station is Embankment. It is so critical to London. When you come out, you’re in Villiers Street and you see all those people funnelled up to the Strand; that represents London’s vitality and the relationship that LU has with the city.
Isn’t your job totally thankless?No, no, no: I have the best job in London by far. Its not easy when you know that the weaknesses in the system cause pain to the people you are trying to serve and my stomach does clench every time we have a signal failure or a train is down. But on the other hand I get so much energy from the job we do. I wear this badge [name tag] when I travel the system and you would be surprised when I tell you how nice people are. Psychologically, Londoners have put up with a neglected tube for so long that they think it will always be like this. But it wont. It can and will be much better, as long as we all keep the faith and keep the programme going.
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