London Underground consists of nearly 300 stations used by five million customers per day, nearly the entire population of Scotland…
The Tube is a major part of London’s infrastructure and its related economy. Station refurbishments range across a full spectrum from mundane tasks like changing lightbulbs up to and including station extensions and building shopping centres on top. With such high usage and limited closure hours, how do London Underground manage access to the Underground for work parties to deliver thousands of tasks? The process can be likened to Yabusame, the Samurai skill of controlling a horse galloping forward at speed using your knees while turning sideways to fire arrows at targets, simultaneously ensuring nothing goes wrong for you or the horse.
The Access department manage all requests to work on the Tube’s infrastructure. Charles Carter is Head of Delivery, Access and Transplant for London Underground meaning that Charles controls access to the network and the engineering trains required to deliver materials for stations and track works. There are approximately 650 – 1,000 work parties per night on London Underground.
Charles sees his role as facilitator, saying: ‘We invest over £1 billion of public money every year in upgrading the Tube and with that comes an enormous responsibility to ensure this money is invested efficiently. Traditionally the window to do this work has been between the last and the first train in the morning, averaging four hours actual working time so it has been my goal to create a complete sea-change in the way we deliver our work, moving from a default no, to a ‘yes we can’ culture.’ Over the years, great efforts have been made to improve processes and staff interface.
Historically, the station supervisor would clear the station of all customers after the last train had departed, then and only then would crowds comprising staff and contractors pile into the station to sign on, the site person in charge would sign in, then go back outside to the work party and tools and materials would be carried down to the platform. A safety briefing would then be held before work would finally begin to take place. With stations closing at approximately 1am and re-opening at 5am, the window for work whether on track or on station was extremely limited.
Work at height with the possibility of items fouling the track would not be allowed on station platforms unless under extremely stringent conditions, while work parties were asked to leave the station 20 minutes before station opening to allow the supervisor to check the work areas and to ensure the station was fit for customer service, regardless of when the train service began or if there were multiple lines with differing service starts. Even if the first train didn’t arrive until 30 minutes after the service began, work parties had to leave.
This was costly and time inefficient and with Government funding tapering down, business practices simply had to change. The Tube no longer receives the approximately £700 million annual operating grant from the government so the transformation programme which was launched to revolutionise access began. The aggregation of marginal gains is the watchword of the all-conquering British Track Cycling and Team Sky squads. This accumulation of small gains to result in a large overall benefit was very much the ethos in mind when the drive for change began.
Procedures were ruthlessly revamped to see where time or money could be saved. The first change was made to the time The Person In Charge Evacuation Register (PICER) form would be completed. The time at which the PICER form, completed in the Supervisor’s office by the Site Person in Charge (SPC) once all customers have gone, was brought forward to 11:30pm. Work groups with hand tools enter stations before the close of traffic to receive safety briefings and get ready to begin work, either on the station itself or on the track as soon as traction current had been discharged.
The second was to move from a largely paper based signing-in system to software known as Permit Access, allowing swifter processing of individuals into stations. The Operational Assurance Notification process where local management were notified of impending works for approval 28 days before via faxed or handwritten submissions was needlessly onerous and time consuming. The Access team took this function over, still inviting comments from the local team but reducing the turnaround time to an average of three days. Platform working, if it did not fall within the kinematic envelope of a passing train would now be allowed without Protection Staff in Traffic or Engineering Hours, subject to operational and safety requirements e.g. putting advertising posters up at height on Oxford Circus’ platforms during the peak is unlikely to be authorised.
A new team was formed within the Access department to help drive the changes, supporting colleagues and contractors across a range of disciplines including but not limited to Maintenance, Track, Signals, Assets, Lifts & Escalators, Operations and Engineering. The Stations Access team comprise former operational station managers and operational risk assessors to act as an ‘honest broker’. This means that they can assist project teams on a number of aspects of their proposed works while reassuring operational colleagues that their sphere of customer services and operations will not be compromised; not least delivering work in such a way as to not disrupt the operation of the station and train services.
Work parties tripping over each other compromises safety and reduces the ability to deliver work. Traffic Hours working is driven ever steadily upward with numerous benefits; the public can see work being done to improve their travelling environment, staff see investment and consequent improvements, there are longer periods of work without paying a night-time premium. These all accumulate to reduced cost and project duration.
This is one large reason why the Access department have sole authority to grant access to London Underground for planned and unplanned engineering work. While collaboration with local station Area Managers is crucial to deliver work, they don’t possess oversight of all work taking place on the network. This need for planning was graphically illustrated by an intervention by the Access team to re-schedule proposed asbestos removal works taking place on a station during a weekend closure while 150 track workers were working on the track at the same location.
Another strand of improvement arose when it was identified that not all planners have an operational background, so the Stations Access team run regular sessions involving a live visit to a station with escalators, high throughput of customers and multiple entrances to give people a taste of how works can be delivered in an operational environment, while services are still running.
Possessions, Christmas and Easter
The track possession planners within Access collaborate closely with their station colleagues. A possession may span several stations but need not require every station to be a worksite location; thus providing an opportunity to deliver station refurbishment tasks. However, the importance of detailed planning cannot be overstressed; there is no point in painting and tiling corridors (especially on Heritage items) if it means obstructing staff and materials en route to the track. Lift and escalator assets all have location specific load-bearing limits so great care is taken to ensure these are not damaged. A multi-million-pound track possession resulting in overruns and reputational damage due to avoidable errors on station related works is unacceptable.
Christmas Day sees battalions of workers descend upon the Tube so while most people are ramping down, the Access team is ramping up. From close of Traffic on Xmas Eve right through to Boxing Day morning, projects compete for the uninterrupted time to deliver projects as part of planned works, contingency and opportunity works. Security concerns are paramount with the Access team and London Underground’s Security team keeping an eye on works on stations.
People putting on a hi-vi and using stations to go down the track to steal copper wiring was not unknown. This process is replicated across other Bank Holiday occasions like Easter. Any opportunity is examined to avoid station closures unless absolutely necessary.
The current SABRE software system which manages access bookings is being phased out and being replaced by Railsys. This multi-million-pound investment could revolutionise planning across every department of the organisation. The software has the benefit of allowing planners to see exactly what work is taking place on a particular station, which allows other work parties to see if they can work in the same station, area of station and even the same room. Depending on whether the work is of a general nature such as routine maintenance or installation of new communications infrastructure, separate project management teams can now more accurately plan works.
The Mayor of London is keen to make transport in the city accessible for all and whether you are a veteran in a wheelchair, a mother with young children or simply needing a little help, the programme to install step free lifts on stations expands yearly.
The installation of such lifts involves massive interaction with Operations and across a whole range of disciplines. Digging up platforms, bringing in piling rigs and installing the lifts themselves, while still offering a frequent and reliable service is one of the most difficult yet rewarding challenges.
Weekly planning meetings take place where the stations access planning managers sit with construction teams to identify where Traffic Hours working can occur and where possible roadblocks can be prevented. The operational experience of the team means that Area Managers are reassured that station services have been actively considered in the process. As with all station related works, there is also liaison with a nominated line Head of Customer Services (Stations) if matters need to be escalated to network level.
Track delivery unit
The work of the Stations team even extends to track work. The Track Delivery Unit recently asked for some assistance in optimising Engineering Hours (1am-5am app) across twenty stations as material deliveries for these stations could not be carried out via engineering trains. The Stations team worked with the local Area Managers to develop a trial system of work to manage the delivery of 90 bags of cement per station before the close of traffic.
As the desire for an expansion of Tube services gathers apace and the population of London expands, the need for detailed logistics of access management to ensure that customers have stations fit for service gains even more professional importance. London Underground is unlocking access to help change the face of a capital city. Few organisations get that opportunity.
Eddie Darroch is LUL Stations Access Manager
Tel: 0203 054 6593