On the eve of his departure for a new life in Australia, Howard Collins, Chief Operating Officer of London Underground, speaks to Nigel Wordsworth.
Howard has been at the heart of London Underground but is now taking his skills and experience down-under as Chief Executive Officer of Sydney Trains. Just before he goes, he relives his career and captures the excitement he feels every day.
You only have to walk downstairs and look at the good service board and you’ll know how we’re doing. If it’s showing every line of good service I know the pressure’s off, but as soon as a line goes to even minor delays then there’s pressure on.
Quick on the response
There’s a train every two minutes on the Jubilee Line, there’s a train every hundred seconds on the Victoria Line. Just a two minute delay can take an hour to restore the service. Our challenge is to be quick on the response, on the recovery, because, if you don’t, it all becomes a big problem.
For many years you saw money being spent on the Tube but you didn’t see where it was going. Now? The Victoria Line has 33 trains an hour, a superb service. The Jubilee Line is looking good, the Northern Line has been converted to an automatic train operation and the S-Stock is arriving.
Hopefully we’ll have a glorious summer so, for the first time, we can test out 58 air conditioned trains! It’s been the biggest rolling stock order since the war. These trains are going to make a massive difference to about a third of our customers.
And look at the data; there are 30% fewer delays on the Underground than there were two years ago. That’s a combination of better, reliable assets and a focus on why things break and fixing them, and a real dedication to pre-emptive maintenance.
How did it all start for me?
I was into transport. Although I was born in Woolwich, I was brought up in the West Indies until the age of eleven and I was mad on things with wheels.
So when I wanted a new motorbike, I needed to get some cash. I applied to British Rail, a big road haulage company, London Transport and Reed International. I had an interview up here at Petty France for London Transport because they had a training scheme for A Level students.
I started work for real in this building over 35 years ago as they were going to pay me 50 quid more than British Rail were offering. I walk sometimes up the steps here and it feels just the same; the smells, the sounds are the same as they were then. The people are quite different, but that was the start of my career.
One of my first jobs after training was being the liaison person between the operators and the engineers. Although I wasn’t an engineer, I had the gift of understanding technical drawings and, because I had hobbies of building motorbikes, I was mechanically minded.
My biggest break
I worked for two or three years doing that and then my biggest break was when I got on a scheme for Area Managers. I loved the emergency response stuff, the incidents, the failures, dealing with staff. I was on the District and Piccadilly Lines and it was great. I thought, this is my job for life.
Shift work, plenty of time off in the week, when you shut the door in the evening that was it, there were no worries, you just waited for the next shift to start up again and see what happened.
In 1988 I was taken out of my job as an Area Manager – the grade was abolished – and I became a Senior Manager looking after a chunk of the District Line. Then I became General Manager of all the stations on the Jubilee, Northern and Piccadilly Lines and after that a service director of the company in 2003, accountable for the operational side of the sub- surface lines. In 2008 I became the Chief Operating Officer.
All the menial tasks
I spent a lot of time out and about. You’ve got to demonstrate you are prepared to remember where you came from. I started at eighteen as what they call a Traffic Trainee, and I did all those jobs as a trainee from guard to foreman, and all the menial tasks.
I remember one boss said, “I’ll tell you what, I’ll show you round various depots and places like that.” He didn’t have to, but that made a big difference to me. Now, when I have graduate trainees coming through my door I’ll give them some time, useful time, not just giving them the photocopying and the tea making because that inspires nobody.
King’s Cross fire
There have been the low points though. I was actually on a week’s holiday when the King’s Cross fire happened. (The King’s Cross fire on 18 November 1987 killed 31 people).
I was at home just pottering around. It wasn’t one of the stations or areas that I looked after and I remember the next morning when we all had phone calls asking us to come in and help.
Initially the reports were that one or two people had been killed. A big fire at King’s Cross Station yes, but as the night and the day unfolded it became the worst tragedy on the Underground for many, many years.
The Fennell Enquiry said that this was not just about flammable materials and someone smoking. The report went through the whole process of the inadequacies of the management structure and training. The culture of the place from a management point of view and also a staff point of view was in dire need of changing.
Single point accountability
There was a lack of investment with everything done on a shoestring. Out of the Fennell Enquiry came the first big chunk of investment to rip out all of the dodgy materials.
We now have a dedicated radio and communication system which we never had before. All of the station would be divided up and kept segregated and secure. When Fennell asked the question, “Who is in charge of King’s Cross?” no one put their hand up, so the Group Station Manager was invented as the first step towards single point accountability.
Nothing could prepare us for 7 July 2005. (At 8.48hrs four terrorists detonated rucksack bombs, one on a bus in Tavistock Square and the other three on the London Underground. 52 people died and over 700 were injured.)
We started getting reports about a ‘power surge’ on the Underground, but then it became apparent that it wasn’t a cable. It was, of course much worse than that. I was at Wapping on that morning. The whole road system had been shut down.
But I was sure that there was a River Police station round the corner. So I knocked on the door, walked in and an ex-British Transport Police guy was there. I said that we had to get back to 55 Broadway. The police officer at once put a group of us on a launch up to Westminster Pier. By eleven o’clock we were back in here.
I ended up working for four weeks with SO13 and the Emergency Services. The first week or so was working with these guys sorting out what could have been part of a bomb, what was just old bits of railway junk and which bits were trains.
I went home twice, I think, in the four weeks, and four weeks later, to the day, we reopened the last bit of the Piccadilly Line, which was quite emotional. I ended up being the public spokesman to the press, and I can remember on the last day I did something like 23 TV interviews and 70 radio interviews. Our own dedicated people, who knew the railway, spent hours and hours just re-wiring and re- building, in temperatures you wouldn’t believe.
There were many staff office workers, cleaners, canteen ladies who went down that tunnel at Edgware Road and rescued people and held people’s hands. They were the real heroes.
I wouldn’t want to ever do it again, but actually every step we made was a step back to civilisation, away from trying to comprehend why these people killed 52 people.
As a typical operator, when I dealt with derailments, one- unders, incidents, my mind clicked out of the emotional experience. I’ve had to get the railway going again, to get those wheels turning. I had to get people to do things in the right order, in a safe way and to get people moving once more.
Despite the tragedies there were great highlights like the Olympics. The real planning happened a year or so beforehand. I’d come out of my day job as COO to be the London Underground Director accountable for the delivery of the Olympics, operationally, because that’s what I’m good at.
So I spent a lot of time cutting through the crap of all the paperwork, working with people on practical operations. I worked with the Olympic Opening Ceremony Team, because I knew that kicking off the event had to go right.
We had to negotiate with the Unions a new deal for them to drive all through the night, plan 180 trains an hour leaving Stratford at one o’clock in the morning and getting staff geared up and engaged with it. I was very privileged to go with a load of former Olympians, for days meeting staff, talking to them about their experiences, really raising the energy.
How were we going to give out information to the public? We bought 2000 iPads and 1000 iPhones, programmed them in with all with the travel information, got the pink hi-viz and, you know what? It was the best form of engagement for our staff.
Even now, people talk about those times and want to go out and spend time on the front line, because the back office accounts and auditors have never, ever seen what happens on a station. That was one of the legacy benefits of the Olympics.
It was just as Boris Johnson described, someone sprinkled Seratonin on the Tube system of London and everyone started talking to each other, everyone was very friendly, the international world was amongst us.
The rain stopped, the railway settled down and right up till September 11th we had the best performing railway, the least delays, the most satisfactory service we’d ever operated in the history of the Underground.
A lot of it was because we weren’t doing any open heart surgery of upgrading the Tube. We’d done a lot of pre-servicing and checking. There were things that broke which, again, people didn’t see because they were fixed quickly.
During the Opening Ceremony we lost a track circuit in a depot. It looked really dodgy, the Jubilee Line could have been out of action but we had a guy who knew what to do. He changed a component, fixed it and by eight o’clock in the evening we weren’t worrying again.
None of us were focussing on the future. All of us, directors, people in this building were focussing on the then and now, but for that period of time it shows, with the right level of support, focus, attitude of mind you can get extraordinary results. So it was a little bit of a euphoric, unusual experience.
What we learned was that we can keep some of these things going – the Emergency Response Teams working with the Police, dedicated Police Paramedic Officers who get places quicker than the ambulance can, staff trained to deal with various things along the way. We have sustained a heightened level of reliability post Olympics, and it’s still going on.
How best to follow the London Olympics?
We knew we had the 150 years anniversary of the Tube, but how could we celebrate it? In 1963 they did some sort of parade at Neasden and pushed a steam engine around the depot. This time we found the oldest locomotive which could be repaired. We found the oldest carriages and we aimed to actually run it on the route – and in live steam.
One of the highlights of my career was being on that first train with all the world’s VIPs, CEOs, and politicians out of Olympia, running through the stations. I remember we arrived at King’s Cross and a little kid said to his Mum, “Is that the Hogwart’s Express Mum?” There was all this smoke and steam. It was great, but it wasn’t just a one-off event. We used this year to focus on coins, stamps, Royal visits and dedicated exhibitions of posters.
I think there was one other ingredient which I was personally involved with, which I think has changed people’s view about the Tube. About two years ago we were approached by the BBC to do a documentary series. It was unprecedented in that we said to the film directors, “You’ll have the same pager as I’ve got so if anything kicks off, you’ll know about it when I do.”
We gave them access to our people. They found the real characters, and there were lots of them, from front line staff. The BBC2 audience wanted to know not only how it works, but why and what’s behind it.
I thought, what on earth are they going to talk about for an hour over six programmes? But they had the biggest audience they’ve ever had for that time of the night. There was a huge social media following.
People would come up to me and say they didn’t realise what we had to put with. Viewers said, “I’m never ever going to moan about the Underground again, having seen some drunken layabouts saying ‘Hold the last train I’ve got to finish my fag.’.” It really gave the personal, proper insight to what was going on and I think that opened people’s eyes to the way we do things around here.
Time to leave
After 35 years you get to that point where you feel everything is going right, and that this is the time to leave. I would have stayed here for the rest of my career. I love the place, absolutely enjoyed every moment of it.
But when Sydney approached me to say how I ought to go down there, how they’ve got big problems and how they needed help, I was persuaded. You know, good weather, an opportunity to change things again, a new job as a Chief Executive Officer of Sydney Trains, son off to university, need to downsize from the house – why not do it?
There are many challenges here. If I was staying there would be so many things I’d get my teeth into. But I think my whole culture, the way I’ve been brought up, running things on a shoestring and doing it well despite that, will put me in good stead down-under.
The more and more I look at Sydney, the more I think there are so many parallels here and I am determined to change the railway which the Sydneysiders detest so much.
I will try not to spend too much of my time looking back and looking at the London Underground, but it’s a bit like many things, you complete the task and then you’ve got to start again. I remember the D-Stock coming into service. Marvellous modern trains, but I am now seeing them being scrapped in the next year or so.
Many tourists, Americans, Australians, say they used to come here and the place was dirty and grimy and noisy and there were no staff and they were all comatose. Now they’ve never seen such a clean, bright place and the staff are really great and they’re engaging.
I’m not being disparaging but we pay well, we’ve got good staff and that makes the difference. I have a little twinkle in my eyes.
I’m definitely going to do this long term, permanent job in the New South Wales Government, but who knows? In five years time I may be back to haunt a few people?
I look forward to arriving as a tourist and travelling on the Tube and understanding how things have progressed even further.