London’s Underground has always relied on being ahead of the game

David Waboso, London Underground director of capital programmes

New Year, new photo, new thinking; LUs David Waboso is focused on innovation in this month’s column and he says it involves more than just new technology.

Innovation has rightly come to the forefront of rail industry thinking of late, which is not surprising given the huge technological revolution taking place in our work and personal lives, driven by the increasing availability of communications and computing. (The best examples are the ubiquitous smart phones and tablets that are becoming indispensable both at home and increasingly in business-critical applications).

"When we use the term ‘innovation’ most people tend to think of new technology. But innovation is just as much about improving processes. How can we do things better, faster and for better value?"

Looking back over 151 years, London Underground has always led the way in rail innovation. Way before smart phones were around, we were the world’s first underground railway when we opened in 1863, and later we introduced the first electrified underground line (a section of what is now the Northern line).

The “metro” concept we invented is now a global phenomenon. We opened the world’s first automatic railway – the Victoria line – in 1969, which has since become the standard for metros around the world. In the 1980s we introduced one person operation (OPO) – the use of CCTV to allow trains to be safely operated without the need for a train guard. Recently, we’ve moved on to  new state-of-the-art signalling on the Jubilee, Victoria and Northern lines, dramatically improving frequencies and reliability.

And now, as we’re experiencing unprecedented levels of customer demand, and with the population of London predicted to increase to more than 10 million by 2031, we need innovation more than ever to increase capacity of our network. Our customers, who deal with new technology in their personal lives, rightly have raised expectations, and we need to continue to respond to their needs and improve their journeys.

When we use the term ‘innovation’ most people tend to think of new technology. And of course, we’d be crazy not to make use of recent advances in technology to meet the challenges we face. But innovation is just as much about improving processes. How can we do things better, faster and for better value?

So we’re placing a huge emphasis on innovation at London Underground. We’re innovating to improve our reliability, our customer service offering, and not least, to achieve better value and efficiency in our investment programme.

Here are just a few examples where we’re innovating in this way:

To improve reliability, we are using predictive techniques to forecast risk to the service from our assets, operations and customers. This enables us to adapt plans for both the operation and maintenance of the railway to improve reliability and availability. Additional benefits are optimised maintenance activity and improved management of failures when they do occur. For example, we developed in-house a remote track circuit monitoring system, which flags up issues with our signalling system before signal failures occur. The use of this system has saved thousands of “lost customer hours” (our measure of delays). And it’s available to our maintenance staff on tablets.

Innovative procurement methods are helping us achieve far greater value. The STAKE model, first used to contract a £330M programme to improve key stations across the Tube network, has reduced costs and allowed us to engage directly with the trades who carry out the work. Our supply chain is incentivised by opportunities of future work, which is conditional upon supplier performance.

Innovative Contractor Engagement (ICE), first used at Bank station, allowed us to procure a scheme that offered 45% more value than our base case. We asked bidders to improve on our design and construction solution set, based on things that were of value to us such as capacity, journey time and minimising disruption. It was important that the whole supply chain that would actually deliver the scheme were involved. We’ve since successfully procured a scheme for the Bakerloo line link between Paddington Underground and Crossrail stations using this method.

I’ve written before about our ongoing programme of track replacement and renewal, and how this is not an easy task – the Tube had to be threaded through existing structures and foundations in many places, resulting in some of the tightest railway curvatures in the world, - so replacing all this in the midst of our highest ever ridership is a real challenge.

Traditionally we’ve used weekend closures because of the difficulty of mobilising plant, labour and materials in very short periods at night. But, working with our partner Balfour Beatty, we’re employing new tools and equipment and more efficient ways of working, and are now able to carry out a large part of our ballasted track renewals overnight. Getting plant and materials in and out is another challenge and we’ve transformed a disused shaft at St. Paul’s station into an industrial lift system, allowing us to move equipment, materials and spoil to and from ten different worksites.

We want to work with our suppliers to further improve process and implement new technology. We also want our staff to share their solutions to the challenges we face. Last year TfL launched the web-based Technology Innovations Portal, which allows staff, suppliers and those in the transport industry to share their solutions. All ideas submitted are assessed for relevance then reviewed by in-house domain experts. We’ve had hundreds of ideas submitted through the Portal so far, and alongside the work we are already doing to improve our processes and the tools and technology we use, are helping us deliver ever more efficiently.

David Waboso is director of capital programmes for London Underground