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.

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