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How Tube Lines won the war on costs

By bringing work in-house the PPP contractor has been able to cut staff costs and save time

Project Camden Town station refurbishment
Location Camden, London
Contractor Tube Lines
Client London Underground
Completion date May 2008

Camden Town underground station usually closes at around one o’clock in the morning. The last traveller leaves, the gates are locked; the station is deserted. But not for long.

While most of London sleeps an army of workers slips unnoticed into the station and begins a hard night’s work.

It is one of 97 stations on the Jubilee, Northern and Piccadilly lines due to be renovated before 2010 by PPP contractor Tube Lines.

The overhaul of the Underground has been going on for four years and despite media criticism of private contractors, Tube Lines has been amongst the most successful.

Costs have fallen from as much as £20 million on the first stations it renovated, to as little as £5 million on the latest.

Most of the change has come about through better logistical and man management, according to Tube Lines’ head of construction Linda Miller.

The former-US army helicopter pilot claims that only by managing down workforce costs can those levels of savings be achieved.

“Eighty per cent of our cost is staff,” she says. “If we can get these costs down, we can save money.”

Tube Lines’ efforts to effectively use staff are hamstrung by the four-hour working window it is allowed between the last passenger leaving the station in the evening and the first early bird arriving in the morning.

The unproductive time lost when setting up equipment at the start of the shift and clearing up at the end, sees staff costs soar.

To combat this it has shortened its supply lines, bringing most of its work in-house.

Ms Miller talks of previous frustrations where there was little incentive for subcontractors to get the work done quickly and the horror stories of employees finding excuses not to work - safe in the knowledge they could go home and still get paid for that shift.

She claims the move to bring the work back in-house has given staff the sense of ownership that will help drive any project forward.

New training centre

“Our site people have much more of an investment in getting it done right,” she says, “People have a personal pride in their job. I don’t think you can get contract workers to invest themselves in a project in the same way.”

But it’s not just the workers who have done the investing. Tube Lines itself has spent £10 million on a new training centre at Stratford, east London, and has cut out all but the most specialist of subcontractors.

A vital ingredient in helping trim back costs is the close relationship it has managed to keep with London Underground.

Tube Lines was able to go back to the client and negotiate a programme of weekend closures, a huge bonus according to Ms Miller. She says, “It’s amazing how much it’s helped. You can get three months’ worth of work done in a week.”

Zero-tolerance approach

The project team were also able to negotiate different working methods, including getting into the station while passengers are still using it - helping gain valuable time.

Time is money and lost time is lost money. With a shift in safety ethos the amount of time spent dealing with accidents has plummeted.

“We have adopted a zero-tolerance approach,” project manager Andy Waumsley explains, “We don’t think it is acceptable to have any accidents, at all, on any of our sites. We inherited a high accident rate and we didn’t like our staff getting injured.”

Where the company does bring in specialist contractors, a tougher stance has saved money. Tube Lines decided to retender its contract for asbestos removal. The winner came in significantly cheaper than its rivals and, despite needing to be nurtured through the first few jobs, the relationship has started to flourish.

This stance has seen operating times in other areas plummet too, an escalator refurbishment which would have taken 26 weeks now takes eight but there’s no drop in quality says Ms Miller.

“We challenged people to see how quickly they could do it,” she says, “and they responded better than we thought.”

Despite streamlined manpower and improved technology, each station on the -underground presents unique problems.

“Until you open up a roof, you never quite know what you’re going to get,” says Andy Waumsley. He claims Camden Town has given him more headaches than most.

“Camden Town is the Northern Line,” he says, “It’s the most complicated exchange on the underground. Up to 60,000 people come through each day. You can’t just shut it.”

Because of this, some work needs to be done two or three times. For example, temporary wiring is installed while the old is stripped out. Permanent wiring is then placed alongside it before it too is removed.

Wherever possible, however, thought has gone into time-saving initiatives.

Shift in workers’ attitudes

With up to two km of signal cabling to move in a single night, Tube Lines developed a cable coiling machine that can coil the giant wires in 25 kg batches rather than the 600 kg drum that was previously manoeuvred underground.

Even the paint stripping and tiling teams have been subject to a time assessment. The old ceramic wall tiles themselves are tiled over in a bid to save valuable time.

But the biggest gain has been in the shift in workers’ attitude claims Mr Waumsley, “We’ve made people directly responsible for their work, and rewarded innovation, and it’s repaid us many times over.”

Further up the line near Chalk Farm, 90 m of track is being stripped out and replaced with new, stronger rails of higher stiffness.

Tube Lines has already laid new rails for 100 km of track and has much more to come but the bid to save installation time runs unabated.

“We are replacing the old bull-headed rail with flat-bottomed rail, which can take more pressure and vibration,” senior field engineer and track specialist Paul Gray explains.

As the footprint of the new plates that hold the replacement track is similar to the footprint of the old fixings, track replacement easier and quicker.

Rails can last as long as 15 years, depending on the stress they are exposed to but those on a tight bend can be replaced as often as every five years.

New rails are laid down on the tracks up to a year in advance. They are brought into position by the long welded-rail delivery train which is powered by the same subsidiary current trackside conductor rails which provides lighting.

Ballast and sleepers are taken up in advance to give access to the base plates. They are replaced with walk boards which can be easily lifted to get to the tracks and provide commuters with a walkway should there be an emergency.

The rails are lifted with specialist two-man lifters, known as ironmen. The Tube Lines team has developed ironmen which can be broken down into three sections and can be safely stored in the storage boxes London Underground has allowed to be built on the platform at Chalk Farm.

Reducing the amount of equipment being carried in and out has helped speed up the renovation process but it has also helped reduce the accidental damage caused during the work.

“The ticket barriers used to take a battering from all the equipment we brought through, Mr Waumsley says, “but now we have created a padded protective cover that just slips over them. It saves a lot of time and effort.” And that is typical of Tube Lines’ forward-thinking approach.

Staying safe in a live working environment

Working on the Tube tracks presents a raft of health and safety problems from asbestos inhalation to stabs from discarded syringes – but the biggest problem is the track’s live current.

Tube Lines are installing a permanent current rail indicator device, or P-CRID, at all its stations, which will test the line at all times, providing anyone on the station with a permanent view of whether the current is running and will issue a warning if it fails.

This replaces a situation where a station worker climbs down each night, at the start of a shift, onto the track and checks using a manual CRID to see whether the current is on.

The P-CRID, in contrast, is installed at the trackside and is visible from the platform, meaning that anyone stepping down onto the tracks needs to do so only to double-check the current.

60,000 Passengers travel through Camden Town station each day

300 New light fittings at Camden Town

245 The number of speakers found in Camden Town’s public address system

68 New security cameras at Camden Town