TfL boss Peter Hendy: London commuter trains are 'shit'

THE MT INTERVIEW: Running one of the busiest public transport systems in the world is no place for a shrinking violet. Just as well then that Transport for London's commissioner knows his job, and isn't one.

by Andrew Saunders
Last Updated: 12 Jul 2016

Credit: Harry Borden

Just ponder for a moment what it must be like to be Peter Hendy, the man who describes himself (only slightly disingenuously) as 'London's best-paid bus driver' and who, as commissioner for Transport for London, is in charge of keeping the creaking and largely Victorian rat's nest that is the capital's road and public transport network up and running every day.

For starters, with over £9bn of taxpayers' money to spend annually – and right on Westminster's doorstep to boot – the job comes with truly epic levels of political and media scrutiny. The back stories of every penny – the huge sums spent on Crossrail (due to open in 2018, about half its £15bn funding comes from TfL), the Victoria station rebuild and the hugely controversial plans for new north-south and east-west segregated cycle highways – are all out there in the public domain. Even the minutiae of petty cash is up for grabs.

'People do say to me sometimes – often people who are better paid than I am – "Isn't the politics hell?" But so what? So bloody what is my view. We are spending huge sums of public money, it would be completely unrealistic to think that we are not going to be scrutinised.'

Not that, with a salary of £348,000, he is badly paid. But in a world of multimillion-pound plc CEOs, it's a relatively modest sum for being the one at whose desk the buck can go no further. 'You have to be a bit feisty because the place needs defending. We are fighting for our reputation because TfL doesn't often get into the media for doing something good. The challenge is not to let that interfere with what you're doing on a daily basis.'

As well as rows over delays and service interruptions, and who's going to pay for what, there's also no shortage of what used to be called industrial relations to deal with. From taxi drivers up in arms about Uber destroying their protected market to Tube drivers taking action over alleged 'elf'n'safety issues, which are really about pay, to bus drivers striking apparently about pay but really about something else entirely. Far from being a purely operational business of getting punters from A to B and back again, public transport turns out to be a looking-glass world full of hidden agendas.

It's hard to avoid the conclusion that Hendy enjoys rolling up his sleeves and entering the fray. There is certainly more than a hint of relish in the way he takes on opponents. 'We've just had a bus strike - it's wholly political, nothing to do with pay and conditions. If it was they would have got a lot more than 16% turnout. It's all about influencing the Labour mayoral candidates to get them to say they'll put it all back into public ownership.

'We've had an RMT ballot about some bloke at Morden who was sacked for failing two alcohol tests. Well, we'll take them on. We've done the right thing. We're a decent employer and we look after people - you've got a job for life here, provided you're prepared to change.

'We try to persuade people not to go on strike because it's not the right thing to do, but we won't give in.'

Sometimes the attention gets personal - like one Evening Standard headline earlier this year accusing him of profligacy over some oysters and a £40 bottle of Pouilly-Fume at dinner. It's the sort of attention that would have many FTSE CEOs thinking hard about chucking it all in for the quiet life of an even better-paid gig in private equity, but Hendy seems able to take it on the chin with at least the semblance of equanimity. 'Someone went through my personal expenses,' he says drily. 'Apparently a £43 bottle of wine is considered very expensive.'

Then there are the commuters: over three million of them every day just itching for a target to vent their spleen on. As anyone who travels in the capital knows, London's regular travellers are a ruthless bunch and anyone or anything that makes them late for work or – worse – late getting home is given a rough ride.

They have some of the worst overcrowding and highest fares in Europe to gripe about – London regularly features prominently on lists of the priciest places to get around. One recent survey by UBS ranked it the fifth most expensive city in the world for public transport costs, well ahead of New York, Berlin and Sydney and beaten only by Scandiwegian outliers like Oslo and Copenhagen.

Yet Hendy, who with his wire-framed specs and blokeish mien really does look as if he'd be equally happy piloting a No 19 down to Battersea as he is in the hot seat back at TfL's Victoria Street HQ, regularly sets out to face the travelling hordes in person, complete with a name badge – he really must have a hide like a rhino. 'You do get complaints and people do point at the name badge and say: "Gosh, you're brave to walk about with that on," but we expect the staff to do it so we should as well.'

Credit: Harry Borden

Keeping visibly in touch with his 'roots' – as a London Transport management trainee in the mid 1970s he did drive a bus, albeit briefly – certainly helps when it comes to dealing with employees, contractors and the public. But looks can be deceptive - there can't be many bus drivers with a knighthood (he quietly picked his up in the 2013 New Year's Honours list) and he's got far too much ambition and energy to spend an entire career piloting a double-decker – always abuzz, he can hardly keep still in his chair.

The most common gripe? 'That bus drivers aren't friendly enough.' TfL receives around 4,000 complaints annually about buses, and last year these included going too fast the wrong way on a roundabout, drivers using mobiles at the wheel and jumping red lights and pedestrian crossings. But Hendy's penchant for getting out and about has helped TfL relate to its punters and get a bit closer to understanding what makes them tick. 'Lots of people don't travel with us because they want to but because they have to. You can either treat them as a revenue source, mercilessly exploit them, or try to make their lives easier.'

Travellers realise, he says, that delays and problems are inevitable. What matters most is how you behave towards them. 'Ticketing used to be under finance, but now we've put it under customer experience with Vernon (Everitt, TfL's customer experience director whose signature appears on all those 'engineering work update' emails familiar to Londoners). We're attempting to face our customers as a unified organisation that treats them as modern adults living in the world's greatest city.'

If you want to see what that means in practice, he says, contrast the way that errors by Oyster Card ticket holders are handled on the Tube (which is controlled by TfL) and on the capital's suburban rail franchises (which are not).

'People hate the suburban rail service, they hate it. If you make a mistake on your Oyster Card on the Tube, we'll refund it. On South West Trains, they'll fine you. That's a big philosophical difference.'

'On Southeastern (another suburban rail franchise whose customer rating is consistently among London's worst) the trains are like the Wild West. They are shit, awful. And then every now and then some people who look like the Gestapo get on and fine everyone they can. It doesn't improve your day, does it?'

If there's one thing that underpins the difference in approach, he reckons, it's having a mayor whose fate is determined largely by how well or otherwise the electorate think the city is working. 'People say the mayoral system has its problems. Maybe it does, but not many. Why would you want to be just one member of the Cabinet when you can be mayor and really in charge? It's the biggest mandate in the country.'

'We've been lucky to have two mayors who are international political figures. I've had eight transport secretaries and probably 20 junior ministers, but only two mayors. That sort of consistency really does make a difference.'

Of course, come May 2016, a third name will be added to the list of mayoral incumbents, as Boris Johnson is heading back to the Commons. Potential replacements include everyone from pink-pound pioneer Ivan Massow, secretary of state for international development Justine Greening and even (at bookies' odds of more than 100-1, because he is not a British subject) former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg.

What does Hendy make of the line-up? He turns suddenly diplomatic (we are talking about his new boss after all): 'We're lucky to have some great candidates,' is all he will say.

Such well-developed political antennae probably date back to his childhood. His parents – Mary, London socialite and daughter of the sixth Baron Wynford, and Jack, an electrician and union activist – were both communist party members, and his brother John is a prominent QC. But in Peter a stubborn streak of mercantilism seems to have taken root as well.

He went to Latymer, a smart north London grammar school, before studying economics at Leeds University. After that stint as a London Transport management trainee he rose rapidly and by the mid 1980s was managing director of CentreWest, a subsidiary of the then state-owned London Buses, which he led through a £34m management buyout in 1995. When the firm was sold in 1997 to FirstGroup, his stake netted him £3.8m and he stayed on to become deputy director, UK.

He joined TfL shortly after it was formed, as director of surface transport in 2001 under his predecessor as commissioner, Bob Kiley. He took over from him in 2006, appointed by Ken Livingstone. Seen as a natural ally of 'Red Ken' he surprised many when Boris Johnson became mayor, not only by keeping his job but also for the skilful way he negotiated such an abrupt change in the political weather.

It must help that – perhaps because he feels financially secure – he is quite happy to rattle the cages of those whom he thinks deserve it. A rare virtue that must appeal to City Hall masters of whatever political stripe. His readiness to take on the black-cab drivers, for example, is based on a fundamental conviction that his job is about providing better services for customers rather than protecting vested interests. Legal arguments over whether the Uber app constitutes a meter or not are missing the point.

But a belief in the power of consumer choice doesn't blind him to the failings of private enterprise either. 'I've been a contractor, I've seen life on both sides.' In fact one thing that really does get his dander up is the prevailing business orthodoxy that life in the private sector is somehow better and more exciting than life in the public sector.

'I don't like this currency that says all public sector organisations must be run by dullards because why else would they do it? The work here is compelling and worthwhile. When I go home at night I feel like I have really done something.'

In fact he reckons the combination of all that scrutiny plus the relentless slog of shipping record numbers of commuters to work and back every day makes TfL a more rather than less challenging environment to be in. 'It's harder to do things here because it's public money we're spending. We recruit 80 to 90 graduates a year and I speak to them personally. I say to them that they will never earn as much money here as they would in management consultancy or investment banking, but that they'll have much more interesting jobs. You're never alone at a dinner party - people are genuinely fascinated by what we do.'

What TfL does is a pretty heterogeneous and complicated task. 'It's an unusual place. It's a public sector organisation but it's classified as a local authority. In fact its budget makes it the largest local authority by some margin. It's not like a limited company, the board is wholly non-executive and my colleagues and I act through a massive scheme of delegation. In business terms we'd be a conglomerate.'

Created in 1999, TfL – chaired by mayor Boris Johnson at least until next year – is responsible for the capital's roads, the Underground railway and the London Overground network, the congestion charge - over 6,500 fines are issued every day – the buses (8,000 of them), the DLR and the Croydon tram network, the licensing of taxis, running the so-called Boris Bikes (just rebranded from Barclays to Santander under a new £44m sponsorship deal) plus one or two other bits and bobs. 'We run Victoria coach station but we don't run any coaches, and we also run the piers on the river but the boats are run by someone else.'

With the mountain of contractors and sub-contractors involved – there are almost a dozen private operators providing buses alone – there are an enormous number of plates to be kept spinning and Hendy's mastery of the detailed workings of it all is a quality that even opponents grudgingly acknowledge.

'You get no time to discuss anything with customers if what you do every day is no good. My first priority is to make sure it all works, because otherwise they'd just think, you're useless because you can't run the Northern Line'.

'I don't suppose Justin King was often asked why the soap powder was three aisles from the toothpicks when he was running Sainsbury's, but that's the kind of detail you've got to know here.'

'Take Network Rail,' he adds, warming to his theme. 'I take no pleasure in saying this, but it's under fire at the moment. The chief exec is a nice bloke and he has this idea about the digital railway and getting the most out of the railway in the next 30 years – but no one is listening because they can't fix London Bridge.'

The sorry tale of chaos and delays while London Bridge station is being rebuilt is certainly an object lesson in what can go wrong. Overcrowding during the modernisation and enlargement of this key commuter terminus – which dates from 1836 and is used by 56 million passengers a year – has become so severe that the police have had to be called in and, with little prospect of improvement before the work is due to complete in 2018, the government is said to be considering parachuting a special director onto Network Rail's board.

Credit: Harry Borden

That is exactly the sort of nightmare scenario that Hendy, thanks to his perfectly attuned nose for how far punters can be pushed before they bite back, has managed to avoid. 'He has one of the toughest jobs there is,' says former government chief construction adviser Paul Morrell, who has had many dealings with the capital's various transport regimes over the past three decades. 'I think the reason it doesn't grind him down and that he has proven so able to survive political change is that he just loves it. All of it – the system, the kit and, above all, the city itself.

'TfL has been transformed since I first had dealings (with the then London Transport) 30 years ago. Then it was bureaucratic, now it is professional and purposeful. That has taken investment and effort, and Peter inspires confidence in his paymasters that their investments will deliver and that the effort is worthwhile.'

Key to his method is the conviction that the services themselves must be seen to improve. 'The city's population is growing at 70,000 to 80,000 a year, so we have to get more people into an old and small system. We've been doing that by replacing worn-out assets, and as you get new assets they are capable of doing more.

'So on the Victoria Line we're now up to 34 trains an hour, the best service we've ever run.' New trains and more reliable signalling have led to the recent announcement that limited 24-hour weekend services will start on the most modern parts of the Tube from September.

Experts have scratched their heads over the feasibility of 24-hour running for many years and even the limited introduction proposed now threatens to be dogged by yet more industrial action over pay and shift patterns. But for the indomitable Hendy it is a crucial mark of progress and he is ready for a fight.

But he admits it is a constant battle not only to keep up with that growing population but also to make those service improvements on top. The results are inevitably a compromise - better than some fear if not quite as good as many a stressed commuter might hope.

Consequently the east-west Crossrail can't come soon enough. 'The day Crossrail opens it will increase capacity in central London by 10%. But that won't last long with the population growing as it is. That's why we're already considering Crossrail 2.'

None of which would be possible without long-term funding agreements in place - the current deal runs to 2021 and provides agreed levels of capital funding and borrowing facilities whilst trimming TfL's so-called grant funding by £220m. 'Long-term funding is the absolute bedrock of spending public money effectively. And we've worked out that TfL supports around 40,000 jobs throughout the rest of the UK. It's a very good argument to put to the Treasury.'

His wife, Sue, is an HR consultant and they have two grown-up kids, David and Anna. The family home is in Bath and, yes, he commutes via public transport. With the capital's population at an all-time high of 8.6 million, does he worry that London might become a victim of its own success? 'I don't think so. In 1976 when I was on the number 11 bus down the King's Road, you'd pick up lots of cleaners at six in the morning. There aren't many cleaners living on the King's Road now; they all live out in Hornchurch and places like that.

'But my kids are here now and so are their mates because it's where the work is. The people who come to London are the most economically active and productive people in the country, and they make the decision to come here themselves, because they get more done.'

What about his own future? After nine years in the driver's seat is it time to head back to the depot and put on his peaked cap for weekend charity runs in his much-loved classic red Routemaster? He thinks not. 'The only thing I worry about is solving today's problems with yesterday's solutions; that I might be a bit too ready with the answers because I have seen similar situations before.'

So whoever does win 2016's mayoral election will only have to worry about finding a new commissioner for TfL if they really want to. The incumbent seems entirely happy to remain where he is.

THREE CHALLENGES FACING HENDY

Getting the first stages of the 24-hour Tube up and running with the minimum of fuss

Making friends with the new mayor - whoever that may be - just as he has with Ken and Boris

Spending a bit more time on weekend 'busman's holidays' driving his classic Routemaster double-decker

HENDY IN A MINUTE

1953: Born 19 March in London. Attends the Latymer School and studies economics at the University of Leeds

1975: Joins London Transport as a management trainee. Learns to drive a bus

1989: Managing director of CentreWest London Buses

1995: Leads CentreWest management buyout

1997: CentreWest bought by FirstGroup. Makes £3.8m from the sale

2001: Director of surface transport, TfL

2006: Commissioner, TfL

2013: Knighted for services to transport.

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