Minding the gap in London's rat holes

profile: Beset by union woes, primitive installations and underinvestme nt, the Tube boss still has high hopes for his underground domain, Paul Rodgers discovers

THERE is only one way to reach Denis Tunnicliffe's office if you want to see inside the head of London Underground's managing director. At 8am the Circle Line to St James's Park is moderately crowded with sullen commuters reading their papers or staring sleepily at nothing in particular. No one smiles. Already there are scraps of litter on the floor. The air is stale. A Walkman's tinny, muffled music tussles with the rattle of the carriage hurtling down one of the capital's longest rat-holes.

Tunnicliffe is proud of the underground maze. You can see it in his eyes and his posture. His goal, he says, is to make the network "even more perfect", as if it had already attained some degree of the absolute. "The difference between now and 1987 is it is radically safer at a higher standard of service," he claims, making it sound almost as enticing as one of the rides at Blackpool.

Yet beneath his smooth, confident exterior you can sense a tension. When the former airline pilot is not peering over his square, wire-frame glasses, he is toying with them, or fidgeting with an earlobe or shifting in his chair. He leaves the impression of a man perpetually riding a financial Circle Line in search of funds to patch up an ailing system that will probably never be self-sufficient.

Add to that his political ambiguity. Once a Labour county councillor, he was appointed by a Conservative government, is at odds with a left- wing union and could be threatened with privatisation if the radical right gets its way. Even a future Labour government would be unlikely to open the public coffers.

Since the appointment of the ex-Hawker Siddeley boss Alan Watkins as chairman of London Transport was vetoed by the Government - like Tunnicliffe, Watkins complained loudly about underfunding - he has toned down his strident demands for greater subsidies. His request last week for extra funding, believed to be for pounds 190m, to cover cost over-runs on the Jubilee Line extension, passed without fanfare.

"I want to see Labour successful and would help them in any way I could," he says. "But I serve the present government and do so loyally." After spending most of his career in nationalised industries, he now finds his best hope of salvation coming from a bastion of the free market - the Confederation of British Industry - which last week proposed a levy on London's business rates to pay for better infrastructure in the metropolitan area.

Denis Tunnicliffe was born 52 years ago in Derby, the son of a hospital worker and a tailor. But he does not regret his humble origins. "Since I wanted for nothing it was quite pleasant," he says . During his teenage summers he filled cigarette machines at the Rolls-Royce plant. And in the sixth form he began working two nights a week at the local Blue Peter pub, a sector he stayed in during his mathematics studies at University College, London, where he rose to manager of the student bar.

College was also where he learned to fly as a member of the RAF's University Air Squadron, earning his wings in a Chipmunk, a stripped-down Tiger Moth with only one set of wings. It was a plane that you didn't so much ride in as wear. He went on from university to the College of Air Training at Hamble, where he qualified in a record 13 months as an airline pilot. For the next six years he flew DC10s and 747s for BOAC. "It was a mind- blowing experience," he says. "A working-class lad becoming a pilot and an honorary member of the officer class, and then getting to fly to exotic locations."

Asked what he did next, Tunnicliffe says that is the wrong question. The right question is what else was he doing at that time. Fed up with strikes, he had become a shop steward. Like many other promising union organisers in the 1970s, he was poached into management in the industrial relations department. There he set out to redress the balance between company and labour. "Being on the union side in the 1970s felt a little like taking candy off children. This was a challenge."

The pattern of doing more than one thing at a time has continued throughout his life. Most of his political activity took place during his 20 years at BA. He was a councillor on three local governments, New Windsor, Berkshire and Bracknell. "I'm not good for local authorities," he quips. "They get eliminated." More unusual was his recent decision to abandon the idea of seeking a parliamentary seat to devote himself to work. "It's not compatible with my role," he says. Along the way he found time to marry Susan Dale, an education expert, raise two sons and collect a CBE. Among recreations he lists boating, church and travel.

By 1986 he was working as an assistant to BA's chief executive, Colin Marshall, but the two men quickly fell out. "Colin and I felt I was no longer adding value in a way with which I was comfortable," he explains cryptically, adding under pressure that while there were no rows, "the essence of every team is that the leader has a natural empathy, and I don't think Colin and I did." After less than a year among the unemployed, he took over as chief executive of Air Europe, the charter line owned by International Leisure Group, which was making a sortie into the riskier world of scheduled flights. Over 20 months he saw his fleet balloon from six planes to 27. But again he disagreed with the boss, and left a year before it folded. "I felt it wasn't watching its cash. "I'm not really an expert on the private sector but I know if you can't pay your bills it's bad."

For the second time in two years he was unemployed, this time drawing the dole at pounds 19.35 a week. Then in 1988, just after the King's Cross escalator fire that claimed 31 lives, he was appointed boss of the Tube. Among those who recommended he take the subterranean job was Labour transport critic Peter Snape. "He wrote to me and said nobody could accuse me of being upwardly mobile," grins Tunnicliffe. Even his new job can't keep him from the air though, and just two years ago he learned to fly helicopters.

The task he inherited at London Underground was Herculean. The Tube network was in decline after more than 30 years of under-investment. Some of it dates back to 1863. "The whole thing was built with vision but little forethought," he says. "The holes in the ground are too small." He needs pounds 300m a year to stand still, pounds 700m a year for a decade to modernise fully.

The Underground today carries 2.6 million passengers a day and stretches well beyond the Greater London boundary, but due to primitive signalling systems, in many cases its capacity is only three-quarters of the theoretical maximum. It is plagued by labour disputes, particularly with the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers union, which will announce the result of its latest strike ballot on Tuesday. Breakdowns are common. Apart from thepounds 300m a year to maintain the system, most of the rest from government goes into the Jubilee Line extension.

There are few ways out of this bind. Government funding is erratic at best, jumping from pounds 550m in 1991 to pounds 800m in 1992, coincidentally an election year, then back down to pounds 550m in 1993. Fares could be increased, though it would take a 40 per cent increase in real terms before it would be subsidy-free. Even spread over 10 years, such an increase is politically unpalatable. Partial privatisation, such as franchising each of the 10 lines, could halve costs if the experience of London's buses is anything to go by, but Tunnicliffe argues it would be impractical. The proposal to raise business rates and earmark the money for London's infrastructure is not popular at the Treasury. What is left is the Government's Private Finance Initiative. A deal with GEC-Alsthom to supply trains for the Northern Line has saved the Underground pounds 400m immediate capital expenditure, but the bill must eventually be paid.

Even Tunnicliffe admits the future of London Underground is still as gloomy as one of his tunnels. "At the moment we're not investing at a rate that allows us to see the light at the end of it," he says.

If chronic underfunding can be classed as a crisis, then Tunnicliffe is, perhaps, the ideal man to handle it. " Most of my career at BA was living through crises," he says. Like any good commercial pilot whose plane is steadily losing altitude, he remains ever calm.

Mickey Rourke celebrates his victory against opponent Elliot Seymour
Gordon and Tana Ramsay arrive at the High Court, London
newsTV chef gives evidence against his father-in-law in court case
Actor Burt Reynolds last year

Watch the spoof Thanksgiving segment filmed for Live!
The data shows that the number of “unlawfully” large infant classes has doubled in the last 12 months alone
i100Mike Stuchbery, a teacher in Great Yarmouth, said he received abuse
Arts and Entertainment
The starship in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
filmsThe first glimpse of JJ Abrams' new film has been released online
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of The Guest Cat – expect to see it everywhere
i100 Charity collates series of videos that show acts of kindness to animals
ebooksNow available in paperback
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Austen Lloyd: Company Secretary

Excellent Package: Austen Lloyd: EAST ANGLIA - SENIOR SOLICITOR LEVEL ROLE** -...

Citifocus Ltd: German Speaking Client Specialist

£Attractive Package: Citifocus Ltd: Prestigious asset management house seeks a...

Citifocus Ltd: Performance & Risk Oversight

£Negotiable: Citifocus Ltd: This is a varied role focusing on the firm's mutua...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Sales Director - SaaS (SME/Channel) - £140,000 OTE

£90000 - £140000 per annum + benefits: h2 Recruit Ltd: Are you a high achievin...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game