Bob Kiley: 'We're still with the sherpas on the lower parts of the mountain, trying to find a way to the top'

The Monday Interview: London Transport Commissioner
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The Independent Online

Bob Kiley had never seen anything like it. He thought the contracts which controlled one of the largest and certainly most complicated public-private partnerships (PPPs) ever attempted in Britain had an extra-terrestrial feel.

"Quite frankly, I thought they had been written on the other side of Venus," London's transport commissioner said. Mr Kiley believes the byzantine contractual documentation, much like the planet, is enveloped in a near-impenetrable atmosphere of carbon dioxide.

The transport commissioner, an American credited with turning round the dilapidated New York subway, is referring to the legal agreements covering the relationship between the state-owned London Underground which runs the trains and the so-called "infracos", private consortiums formed to maintain trains, stations, track and signals

One of the more risible provisions in the 2,800 pages of closely-typed Venusian, Mr Kiley says, was the definition of litter on platforms. A ticket was considered to be one type of litter, but if it was torn in half it was treated under another regime.

So, a year after the final contract was signed, what does the head of Transport for London (TfL) make of it all? "I didn't like it then and I don't like it now," he says. "It isn't working the way they said it would. You have to give them the benefit of the doubt after the first year, but it is disappointing. We need to start putting pressure on to achieve higher performance."

Mustering all the discretion at his command - doubtless learnt during his time with the CIA - Mr Kiley says the performance of the PPP is "somewhere between disappointing and fair to middling".

This has been quite an experience for the man from Minneapolis. By all accounts a vaguely liberal Democrat, Mr Kiley's first high-profile post was as president of the US National Student Association, which was backed by the CIA..

As a CIA agent, he specialised in covert funding of foreign youth and student groups. After the American student association's connections with the CIA were exposed, he was given a job as an officer in the agency's headquarters at Langley, Virginia where he rose through the ranks of the service. He left the CIA in 1970 partly because of his misgivings over the Vietnam War. A subsequent career as an academic, consultant and administrator included a time as chief executive of the Boston and New York transport authorities.

But how did a former CIA officer who took on the transport unions during his time in New York, find himself working for "Red" Ken Livingstone a man whose political manifesto, as Mr Kiley might see it, could also have been composed on the second planet from the Sun.

"It was a classic case of opposites attracting one another. It was a radical leap for me to come over here. I knew it would be a challenging environment. My relationship with Ken the boss needed to work Almost from the first meeting I thought the relationship would be strong and that's the way it has turned out."

As to working with British people: "There are more similarities than differences. We are all human beings. Perhaps rank and protocol matters more here than in the States."

And decisions over public projects? "You have a very strong central government. Here the Exchequer takes 97 per cent of taxes generated. In the US the proportion is 70 per cent, with the rest raised at a local level."

Mr Kiley's stay in London, which began with his appointment in January 2001, has not been without its rewards. Amid considerable criticism, Mr Kiley was awarded a salary of about £250,000 a year, plus performance bonuses, and given free tenancy of a large house in Belgravia. Mr Livingstone said at the time that if he turned round London Underground it would be "remarkably cheap at the price".

The American was given responsibity for most forms of the public transport in the capital, but by far and away the most troublesome has been the Tube.

While the two infracos have attempted to make a fist of maintaining the ramshackle fabric of the system, Mr Kiley says there has been "little or no" evidence that they are addressing the other main element of their task: building a new infrastructure. The promised increased reliability of the trains has also failed to materialise.

"After just one year I am not getting hysterical about it. When plant has been allowed to go to seed you can't get it back in a flash. It's going to be a long, hard slog. You have to put in resources over a long period, but I'm beginning to worry. They need to step up the pace." His relationship with one of the consortiums in particular has also been problematic. He says he has found it difficult to elicit detailed information from Tubelines, which looks after the Jubilee, Northern and Piccadilly routes, about the work they perform and the state of the infrastructure.

But people are trying to make it work. "Each day there is a conference at 7am of senior London Underground people so they know what's been happening during the previous 24 hours. Although it's a telephonic meeting, it is well-attended and taken seriously. People are forthcoming; they let it all hang out. They know that at the operating level if they don't work together it is sure to fail."

Mr Kiley's private views of the performance of the infracos are almost certainly more negative than he lets on. But the transport commissioner needs to keep the Government onside.

He hopes Gordon Brown's comprehensive spending review, due for completion this summer, will allow Transport for London to invest in infrastructure long term, for the sake of the capital and the UK economy.

"London is the most important financial centre in the world, more important than New York, Hong Kong and certainly more important than other European centres. London is leaping ahead. Every bank needs to be physically in London, not just electronically. It's hard to see how that's going to change, but we have to make sure it continues to happen.

"London needs to ensure it has the infrastructure, the transport, the housing and commercial office space, but the most important is transport.

"Investment needs to be committed at least five years and ahead, preferably 10 to 20 years. We shouldn't be stuck in annual cycles where we are told, 'Don't call us we'll call you'. If we are able to turn that attitude around we'll have climbed a very high mountain indeed. At the moment we're still with the sherpas on the lower parts of the mountain trying to find our way to the top."

He believes Downing Street, the Treasury and the Department for Transport understand the problem and are sympathetic to the solution. "We just have to get all the agencies together," he says. He is particularly concerned that the Crossrail scheme - which aims to connect Heathrow and Paddington in the west with Liverpool Street and Kent and Essex in the east - seems to be in a political and financial limbo.

He believes that by 2016 London's population will have grown by between 800,000 and a million and that the capacity of public transport needs to increase by 38 per cent. More than half of that would be provided by Crossrail. He believes that £2bn to £3bn towards the project could be raised through an increased business rate and roughly the same by using future fares income as collateral. He says a further £3bn should be put up by the Government because of the beneficial effect the link would have on GDP, for London and for the nation. Mr Kiley also needs government support for TfL's ambition to take over responsibility from the Strategic Rail Authority for overground services in London.

The transport commissioner's tenure expires at the turn of the year. Mr Kiley reckons it could take three or four more years to get the job done and he is keen to complete it. That depends partly on negotiations over a new personal contract. The other main variable is the outcome of mayoral election in June and Mr Livingstone is odds-on favourite to be re-elected.

The CV

Born: 16 September 1935, Minneapolis, USA

Educated: University of Notre Dame, Harvard University graduate school

1963-70 Central Intelligence Agency

1970-72 Associate director, Police Foundation, Washington DC

1972-75 Deputy Mayor, City of Boston

1975-79 Chairman and chief executive, Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority

1975-83 Adjunct professor of public management, Boston University

1979-83 Vice-president Management Analysis Centre (Gemini Consulting) Cambridge (Massachusetts)

1983-90 Chairman and chief executive Metropolitan Transportation Authority, New York

1990-94 President and chief executive, then chairman of Fischbach Corporation, New York

1994-98 Principal, Kohlberg & Company, New York

1995- President and chief executive, New York City Partnership and Chamber of Commerce

2001- Commissioner, Transport for London