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150th Anniversary Year of London Underground

In the 150th anniversary year of London Underground, its Managing Director, Mike Brown, MVO FCILT, was the speaker at this year’s Annual CILT Sir Robert Reid Rail Lecture, held in central London. He summarised the Underground’s long history, its current performance and its future potential. Edward Funnell reports on what he had to say.

Historical vision
Mike Brown opened by praising the persistence and vision of one of the Underground’s founders, Charles Pearson, that led to the opening of the Metropolitan Line, the world’s first underground railway, in January 1863.The line’s 150th anniversary was celebrated in style in January this year.

London’s great terminus stations were built on the edge of the central London area (because planning applications for more central locations were usually rejected), which meant people had to travel through the capital’s narrow and congested streets to reach their end destinations. Charles Pearson argued these arteries were no longer adequate for a city’s whose population had grown to 2.5 million by the 1850s. His cause was helped by the fact that horses – and their waste, which tended to land on the streets – were regarded increasingly as unhygienic, and the lack of a public transport system did nothing to end the city’s slums as people were forced to live cheek by jowl near to their jobs.

Charles Pearson’s efforts to persuade, cajole and encourage investment finally paid off when the Metropolitan Railway opened. It might have been an engineering feat in those days, but as Mike Brown wryly noted, journalists of the day were not slow to criticise, describing travelling on it as ‘absolutely foul’ and describing the treatment of passengers by staff as ‘barbarous’.
The opening of the Metropolitan Line was followed in the 1880s by the District and Circle Lines and then the Waterloo and City Line. Technology was showing its hand by the turn of the 20th Century and the Central London Railway (today’s Central Line) was the catalyst of electrification.
A major feature of London’s Underground is its small tunnels and narrow gauge. Mike Brown said that as early as 1901 it was recognised that the system had been built on too small a scale. This was partly due to the technical limitations of the day, but also because of a desire to keep construction costs down, which meant that tube lines were built directly beneath the route of some of the city’s busiest streets. This explains some of the sharp twists and turns we experience when travelling on the tube.

War and uncertainty
Between 1861 and 1901, the population of London doubled to more than six million people. By 1907, the Piccadilly, Northern and Bakerloo Lines had been built, reflecting and reinforcing the growth of London.
Thereafter, the Underground was a major player in shaping and building the city into a great metropolis. However, no more lines were built for 60 years. Investment was halted by the effects of the First World War, the Depression and then the Second World War. However, between the wars, some of the iconic station buildings were built, such as those on the Metropolitan and outer parts of the Piccadilly Lines, and by 1933 London Transport (LT) had been formed. Top LT management pioneers such as Frank Pick and (Lord) Albert Ashfield inspired clever design, developed strong branding and introduced more effective and coherent management of the London Underground as a system.

During the Second World War, the Underground became known for sheltering thousands of citizens from bombing raids. However, this was not always safe: bombs dropped at Balham, Sloane Square and Bethnal Green stations caused substantial loss of life.

Post-war, the immediate priority was not new lines but the repair of existing lines, although the Central Line was extended both east and west in 1947. Nationalisation followed in 1948. However, a lack of investment meant that the system went through what Mike Brown called a miserable period for the next 20 years. It was an ageing system with increasing unreliability and delays that caused great passenger frustration.

On the move again
Matters improved again when the Victoria Line was opened in 1967. It speeded up journeys and improved connectivity, but it was apparently predicted to be ‘a white elephant that no one would use’, so its design was based on the system of narrow tunnels, platforms and gauge used to build the lines 60 years previously.

Originally estimated to carry 50 million people a year, the Victoria Line now carries 150 million people a year on 33 trains an hour. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Tube became part of political arguments and the Moorgate fire of 1975 and King’s Cross fire in 1987 were operational low points.

A period of investment brings the story up to date. The first big investment was the Central Line upgrade in the early 1990s, followed by the Jubilee Line extension and new trains for the Northern Line. The Public Private Partnership (PPP) of the late 1990s onwards was designed to provide additional funding. It was the focus of big political battles. Mike Brown argued that it was the complexity of the detail of the contractual mechanisms contained in the PPP that led to its downfall.

Gold medals
Mike Brown made it clear that getting a grip on the recent Jubilee Line upgrade was a top priority and that getting it right had been key to ensuring that transport or the London Olympics and Diamond Jubilee celebrations worked well in 2012. There were 100 million journeys on the Tube during the Games (85% of people visiting the Games did so using the Tube), an increase of 30%, and people did spread their journeys to avoid peak times. He described the Olympics and Paralympics as an absolute triumph for the transport network as a whole.

Mike Brown said that to him: ‘It was clear we would deliver [for the Games], but no one believed we would.’ Before the event, he held 150 briefing sessions with 100,000 staff at Stratford, and staff were also given a tour of the Olympics Park: ‘to give them a sense of ownership’ of the Games.

Future challenge and opportunity
Turning to the future, Mike Brown highlighted commercial opportunities as well as tricky challenges caused by changing demographics, a growing population and new and rapidly changing technology. The population of London is set to grow by 750,000 by 2031 and the workforce in London is set to grow by 1.2 million by 2031. This is the equivalent of adding two additional tube trains full of people every single week, or absorbing the population of Birmingham within the next 17 years.
Other challenges are social and environmental – for example, life expectancy in East London is 10 years less than in West London. Transport for London has CO2 emissions targets to meet, and by 2016 there will be 1,000 new hybrid buses and 600 new and cleaner double-decker buses on London’s streets.

Operational challenges include replacing a lot of ageing infrastructure that dates from the early 1970s – for instance, the signalling on the Bakerloo Line runs off ZX Spectrum computers (there are apparently only two engineers available to maintain it), and the trackside equipment at Earls Court providing passenger information was described by Mike Brown as ‘stone age’. There is a need for investment not only in large schemes but also in basic trackside and back-office equipment and systems to ensure seamless and efficient running.

Building on success

Between 2003 and 2029, the Underground will see a 50% increase in capacity. Mike Brown underlined four key objectives to underpin future success:

• To deliver a safe and reliable service

• To exploit the current network

• To grow the capacity of the network

• To transform customer service

He highlighted a strong pipeline of investment with the current programme of tube upgrades designed to improve reliability and capacity and journey quality:

• The Metropolitan Lines now has 190 new trains with air conditioning
Crossover junctions that were ripped out in the 1970s and 1980s are
being reinstated

• The Northern Line upgrade by the end of 2014 should increase
capacity on one of London’s busiest tube lines by 20%

• There are good station improvement projects in hand – Bond Street,
Victoria and Tottenham Court Road – and work at stations to make
room for Crossrail

• London Overground is a great success and the development of the
Northern Line extension in Battersea–Nine Elms area

• Technology means that Wi-Fi can be rolled out across the network;
work is also underway to design better trains with wider doors

• The next phase for Oyster and contactless payment is being

• The extent and quality of retailing at stations will be improved

• There is a commitment to retaining staff at stations, especially to
provide information, help and reassurance to passengers

Mike Brown made the case for continuing to invest in London’s Underground. For instance, there are dozens of companies and suppliers located across all parts of the UK from which the Underground buys that create jobs and support local communities, notably 400 jobs in Derby. He claimed that London Underground supports at least 25,000 jobs outside London and that investing in London’s transport network is strongly supported by the business community. He cited infrastructure challenges – for instance, the opening of HS2 will require that Underground stations at key railway stations that can handle hundreds of people from high-speed trains accessing London’s public transport hubs, which they will not without further work. London will eventually need Crossrail 2, he said.

Mike Brown argued forcefully that it is wrong to let the prevailing view go unchallenged: namely, that London has had its turn for transport investment, because, he argued, London is not competing against other cities in the UK. The real competition is cities such as Paris, New York and Tokyo, which are competing to attract those large companies deciding where best to locate over the next decade. Covering financial matters, he made a comparison with the five-year control periods that apply on the national rail network. He said that the Underground needs a surer stream of funding and investment, not the stop-go peaks and troughs of past decades and annual hand-outs. The Underground realises it must play its part, too, by being more efficient. In this regard, he said, it has delivered nearly £10 billion-worth of efficiency savings.

In a wide range of questions that followed, Mike Brown said that his greatest personal challenge in his current role had been managing the immediate aftermath of the effects of the bombings in London on 7th July 2005, including restoring the service and public confidence on 8th July. Looking ahead, he firmly believes that the Underground will go on being very relevant to London over the next 100 years, with more services and new infrastructure in a growing city.

Rounding off proceedings, Mike Brown’s lecture was warmly commended in a vote of thanks given by Martin Brennan, Chairman, Strategic Rail Forum. The evening was chaired by Donna Creswell, Chief Operating Officer, CILT. 

Thank you to CILT for allowing CILT Ireland to reproduce this article.


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