Delivering in ‘the Zone’

David Waboso explains how incorporating operational railway requirements into traditional time/cost/quality planning keeps the Tube running even while it is being upgraded.

We are delivering the largest capital programme in London Underground’s history – the world’s oldest metro – in the midst of its highest ever ridership. We’re introducing new trains, signalling, track and drainage and stations. We’re upgrading and renewing power, communications and tunnelling while still moving over four million passengers every day. 

"It’s this operational angle that really makes upgrading an intensive network so challenging."

To achieve this, our mission is to become a world-class capital delivery organisation. And to give substance to this mission, we’ve expanded the traditional time/cost/quality triangle to include operational railway requirements such as closures and reliability into a model I call ‘the Zone’. Critically, what the Zone does is to help define what all the teams have to do to deliver on a hugely complex and busy railway and keep London moving at the same time as transforming the Tube. 

It’s this operational angle that really makes upgrading an intensive network so challenging. It explains in many cases why costs and complexity are higher than on a greenfield site, but it does not remove the legitimate pressure we all face to reduce our costs and get our unit rates as low as they can be. Over time, we innovate around the operational constraints as confidence is gained by both operator and engineer in each others’ processes, and create further efficient delivery.


We can’t consider ourselves to be world class if people are being harmed by our activities or assets. So we anchor our delivery around safety. Initially this was around bettering industry benchmarks on construction safety but, as any harm is unacceptable, our focus has become “everyone home safe and healthy every day”. This encompasses asset and system safety performance, recognising the role that projects play in ensuring our customers get home safe and healthy every day. 

Our safety strategy focuses on working collaboratively with our suppliers, stakeholders and colleagues to seek and take opportunities for further risk reduction. Engaging and developing people in risk identification, coupled with our new Lessons Learned and Innovations portals, will be key to developing the culture and implementing the learning and ideas needed. Cross-programme and programme-level HSE improvement plans will bring a step-change in prevention and new reporting and monitoring systems will help us track progress. 


Performance and reliability

We then define targets for performance, specifically including reliability where historically we have had some poor performance from new equipment. In benchmarking with other metros, we have set world-class targets for new schemes. So as well as delivering the capacity outputs such as increases in trains per hour, we also define the reliability targets that new equipment must meet, for example distance or time between failures. This encourages innovation around off-site testing that means that when new equipment is delivered to the operational railway, it performs perfectly “out of the box”.

In addition our new systems have built-in reliability monitoring. On the Victoria line for example, the new trains monitor their on-board systems and, at the first sign of trouble, send reports to the depot so that the train can be withdrawn before the failure impacts our service. It is this approach that has meant we delivered the Olympics at record levels of reliability, and have in the past few years improved reliability on the Tube by 40%.

Schedule performance is another key indicator we target and track our performance against. We also track the number of milestones delivered against plan each period, monitoring movement of forecast dates and erosion of float. Our key milestones are set and change controlled by our programme boards, with membership from across the business, reflecting the importance these critical activities have on our successful delivery.

We have set ourselves a target of achieving 90% of our key milestones on or ahead of programme. As we improve we would want this to approach 100%, or “assured delivery” of projects, such that there is never a question of a project being late. Our record of delivering projects to time benchmarks well across the industry.



London is a world class city and increasingly intolerant of closures. We do not close the railway lightly and generally only at weekends. As demand for service increases and we move to a 24 hour railway at weekends, we must ensure that as far as possible we maintain services through the centre of London. We have to do more and more work during the day when stations are open and trains are running. Operators and engineers work collaboratively together in order to both keep London moving and transform the Tube.

Refurbishing and redecorating stations while they are open with tiling, painting and general installation work going on behind temporary barriers, in view of the public whilst they continue their journey is becoming the norm. Moving our track renewals from a weekend closure activity to a night-time activity is also a key part of our strategy. The incremental night by night replacement of track, keeping the railway available for traffic in the morning is beginning to replace the track renewal that has historically been done in weekend closures. This will become the norm and make the Night Tube a reality.


Unit costs and efficiency

We track “unit rates” such as cost per metre of track replaced, cost per new escalator or lift and cost per km of re-signalling, and compare them against other railways using similar systems. When you remove “macro” factors such as different wage pay rates, you can see real underlying trends in performance that are susceptible to management action, and all my team are incentivised to drive down unit rates over time. After all, world class is best in class! 


Apart from safety and reliability, the focus areas in the Zone, all areas need to be delivered. There are trade-offs that can be made. Schedule can be bettered if additional closures are granted, and unit costs are improved if we do block closures.

The just-completed re-signalling of the Northern line – the busiest on the Tube – is a great example of capital delivery. It has been achieved ahead of schedule, within budget and at reducing unit rates, at record levels of reliability, with fewer closures and with an excellent safety record. We need to ensure we do this across the entire capital programme. It’s a herculean task but we are well on our way and are seeing real improvements in all the five areas of the Zone. This is all towards world class. 

David Waboso is capital programmes director for London Underground