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Working on both sides of the tracks

Tube Lines is using two unconventional approaches on its work – but it may raise eyebrows. By Mark Lewis

Transport for London, which runs London Underground, proposed last year that the refurbishment work for the Jubilee, Piccadilly and Northern Lines could be done for as little as £4.1 billion.

Tube Lines says that if TfL wants the work done for less than £6.7bn, it might be achieved through a path to affordability document that has a series of options. It says LU could consider these to help identify possible ways of achieving the same performance objectives but at a lower cost.

None-the-less, Tube Lines has some pedigree at getting the actual work done. Over the first six and a half years of its 30 year contract it has refurbished almost 70 stations on the Northern, Jubilee and Piccadilly Lines. It is now refurbishing at half the cost as it was when it started. And after a slow start, the refurbishments have accelerated.

Tube Lines puts this down to two fundamental alterations to the way that it works. Firstly it has taken on the scoping, design and quality assurance of its own refurbishments. Secondly it has moved away from a principal contractor model to what it describes as an engineer-procure-construct model.

On the surface the first is more controversial; assuring its own design smacks of a conflict of interests. But Keith Sibley, Tube Lines’ senior delivery manager says it has rigorous checks and balances which eradicate the conflict. “We have to meet all of the safety standards and London Underground always has the option of a second opinion,” he says.

“After we finish each station they do a review and make sure we have done everything. London Underground has a hierarchy of project managers who are accountable. So they become engaged as we go. And they are looking at our formal review process to make sure that they agree that we are doing a good job.”

Sibley admits that the shift of responsibility on scoping can mean that some refurbishment works which London Underground might have required in the past, such as replacement lighting, for example, might not be done. “It is like a person’s lounge,” says Sibley. If the wires are exposed on the walls then of course you would rip it out and replace it. But if it is functioning perfectly well, then there is no reason.

“We have got a programme assurance plan. It is shared with London Underground which governs our prices. So now rather than govern every project it governs the process.”

And, as importantly, having London Underground assure the work was ruinously slow. “There were times in the past when designs were done and it would be weeks and months before London Underground had reviewed a 20 per cent submission. Then we would have a 60 per cent submission, then an 80 per cent submission, then 100 per cent. And this happened over everything. Each time we’d have to go back to our architect and it all took time.”

The second tranche of productivity gains are bought through altering the procurement model. In the past, Tube Lines employed a principal contractor to manage the work station by station. But access problems meant there were often workmen in vans sitting outside stations and charging for the pleasure.

“Things were happening to us,” says Sibley. “When you work on the underground, access can be unpredictable. But since you need to give the prime contractor the terms of your relationship, every time you couldn’t provide access to their work then they were going to claim.”

Now, says Sibley, by effectively taking on the principal contractors’ role itself, it can be more flexible. “Rather than be responsible for one thing we are accountable for everything; the programme of the work and the work methods.

“We anticipate that there will be problems and we have a plan B and plan C. So instead of thinking like a sub-contractor and going and sitting in a van and claiming for that, we will go and work on a second or a third level work. We won’t lose the time.”

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