Australian journey Howard Collins

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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.

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