I've been using the London Underground almost daily for more than 10 years, but I've never done this before. Jumping down off the end of the platform and standing on the track itself is a surreal and slightly disturbing sensation. As I turn and look back up, boots only inches from the live rail, I can't help reflecting that under normal commuting conditions this view is reserved for those unfortunates who - either by accident or design - are about to get run over by an oncoming train: 'one-unders' in the official jargon; 'track pizza' in the dark slang of the Tube-drivers.
But these are very far from normal conditions. For a start the power's off, it's getting on for three o'clock in the morning and the last train - even here in the heart of the capital, Leicester Square on the Northern Line - is long gone. Up top, the station gates are barred; late revellers will have to rely on night buses, taxis or good old shanks's pony to get them home now. The booking hall, escalators and corridors of one of the busiest stations on the most heavily used of all the Underground's 12 lines are now empty and strangely silent.
By contrast, the track is a hive of activity. Here's a bloke emerging from the tunnel mouth wheeling what they call a 'walking stick' along one of the rails. He's an ultrasound technician and his machine may look like a high-tech vacuum cleaner with a roller blade at the bottom, but it's a piece of precision equipment that takes skill and training to use. This becomes all too clear when he tries to explain the mass of squiggly yellow lines on the screen.
He and his colleagues walk the tracks, one rail at a time, logging sections that are worn out and need replacing. He's also on the lookout for microscopic cracks and faults indicating that a rail is in danger of failing. Commuters know when such a cracked rail has been found, because it usually results in the imposition of a TSR (temporary speed restriction) and consequent delays until that section is replaced.
Behind him is a 'fluffer', one of the army of nocturnal cleaners who clear litter from the tracks and tunnels. Newspapers, foil sweet wrappers and drinks cans blown along them play havoc with the signalling equipment. And in the station itself, the aptly named 'suicide pit' (the space underneath the track at stations, to give anyone falling off the platform somewhere to get out of the way of the trains) is bustling with hard-hatted engineers and maintenance workers, getting on with the night's major task - track replacement. Over a long weekend, these teams can replace up to 1km of track; their publicly managed predecessors could manage barely 300 metres.
This line is one of the oldest on the world's oldest underground system, and until recently the whole network had been starved of investment for decades. Much of the Northern Line - with the exception of relatively new (but still unreliable) rolling stock - is simply worn out. The track replacement programme began earlier this year and has another 18 months to run. The herculean task of replacing miles of rail, sleeper and concrete footings is made even harder by the fact that weekday trains must be kept running all the while (although weekend closures and risk of Monday-morning overruns are now endemic). Once the track has been sorted, a new signalling system is next on the shopping list, due by 2012.
Safety, naturally, is a huge priority down here and they really walk the talk. Alcohol consumption the day before going underground is banned, and anyone suspected of downing so much as half a lager will be sent home in short order. Watching over the entire proceedings is the Protection Master, whose job it is to ensure that no-one gets anywhere near the track until the 630-volt DC traction current is off, and that everyone is well clear before it gets turned back on again. But you won't catch me standing on the live rail anyway, just in case.
I'm here to witness the work being done by Tube Lines, one of the two infrastructure companies responsible for maintaining and improving the Underground network under the terms of the controversial £16 billion, 30-year Public Private Partnership (PPP) deal (see panel overleaf).
A collaboration between engineering groups Amey of the UK and Bechtel of the US, Tube Lines was formed as a special-purpose vehicle in order to bid for the three Underground PPP contracts in the late '90s. It won one - the other two went to another consortium, MetroNet Rail - and took custody of the Jubilee, Northern and Piccadilly lines on 1 January 2003.
In the industry lingo, Tube Lines is an 'asset management' company - it repairs and upgrades the assets under its control, which amount to 200 miles of track and signalling gear, 255 trains, 100 stations, 227 escalators, 71 lifts and a whopping 2,395 bridges and structures. What it doesn't do is operations - services are run and operational staff employed and managed by London Underground, which in turn is part of Transport for London, run by Mayor Ken Livingstone's office.
What Tube Lines found gave it a nasty shock, says CEO Terry Morgan. 'We didn't know how bad it was until we took over. We couldn't do much due diligence. There wasn't even an asset register. We spent £30 million on our enterprise (IT) system because of that.'
The asset register - essentially a list of what you're responsible for and where it is - is the cornerstone of modern asset management, but the Underground, under-managed and run on a make-do-and-mend basis for decades, didn't have one. Nobody knew exactly what kit was where down the tunnels, in the signalling rooms or at the depots. Computer systems were ancient and sometimes even home-made - one small track repairs database was apparently found running on a 1980s-vintage ZX Spectrum. Things were so bad in the early days that some senior managers took to buying weekly Travelcards rather than season tickets, convinced that the whole caboodle would soon be taken back under government control.
Morgan admits that the shock made the firm slow off the mark but says he's running a pretty tight ship now. 'It took us time to get our act together. We're in our fourth year and we've had to do a lot more change than anyone expected. But we're past that stage now, and we are getting projects delivered.' Major projects include the multi-million-pound Oracle-based asset register and works scheduling system alluded to by Morgan above and the refurbishment of 97 of the group's 100 stations.
The station programme is now halfway through, and the new station at Wembley Park has been delivered on time and to budget, unlike the stadium it will serve. The Jubilee Line seventh-car project, completed last year, is the one they are all most pleased with. Adding an extra carriage to 63 Jubilee Line trains delivered a much-needed 17% capacity increase in one fell swoop - all with nary a hitch. 'We spent £120 million on major projects in our first year,' says Morgan. Last year it was £450 million - that's a massive increase. To be frank, it's not difficult to spend that much money on the Underground, but spending it properly is our real challenge.'
Tube Lines' strategy here is to move to an asset-based maintenance system. This involves building a comprehensive and flexible knowledge base so that the location, service and maintenance history and condition of every asset on the system is both known and readily accessible. This, explains director of operations Steve Peat, allows repairs and replacements to be done when they are required rather than because a given piece of rail, lift or escalator has done its x years of service. There's a way to go yet but engineers with GPS-equipped handhelds are busily adding data every day to build a comprehensive picture of what's there.
There's also plenty of scope for improving processes and practices in an industry that has been more or less left to its own devices for decades, and still does things the way they've always been done. Escalator refurbishment, for example, which took an agonising 26 weeks a time under LU. Why did it take so long? 'The answer to a lot of this stuff is prosaic,' says Peat, 'a question of what bits are needed and in what order, and making sure that best use is made of the limited working time available each night.'
Organising the parts into numbered crates for regular sequential delivery helped enormously. 'It's also important to take care of the teams - just making sure there was catering on-site meant that engineers weren't wasting time up top looking for a cup of tea in the middle of the night. And we gave them all brand-new PPE (personal protection equipment - hard hats, jackets, boots etc) which was much better quality than they were used to.'
Making sure LU's inspectors are involved at all stages helps to ensure quick sign-off when the work has been done, too. The result? Replacement times fell to less than 10 weeks. 'Our teams are now better than the ones from Otis (the firm that makes the escalators),' says Peat.
It's undeniable that more money is being spent in a more considered and strategic way on the Underground than has been the case for decades. But the fact that this money is being spent by private-sector consortia rather than directly from the public purse remains controversial. Critics of the PPP - such as mayor Ken Livingstone, who spent a fortune unsuccessfully fighting it in the courts - say the direct public funding system - unburdened by the need to make profits for shareholders - is more efficient. The critics also claim that the terms of the PPP contracts are so heavily weighted in favour of the infrastructure companies that there is little chance of them failing to meet targets which they effectively set themselves.
London Underground's MD Tim O'Toole, a hard-nosed veteran of the US rail industry, is also a fan of direct funding. 'I think it would have offered better value for money. If you had complete vertical integration, one person would be responsible for everything, whereas with the PPP an awful lot of time and energy is spent just keeping score. The contracts themselves are ghastly.'
As the public face of the organisation that has to answer to angry commuters when things go wrong - and they still go wrong a lot - O'Toole wants to be holding the purse-strings himself. 'A frustration of mine is that I would love to be able to dictate how the money is spent - when you are the person who has to explain to people why their train was cancelled, you want to be able to direct where the money is going to be spent that night.'
But if the PPP's blend of public money spent by private enterprise (minus profit and costs, of course) is controversial, then the history of directly funded public-sector capital projects is hardly a happy one. The Jubilee Line extension (opened in 1999), the last such undertaking on the Tube, took nine years to build and, at £3.5 billion, was almost £1.5 billion over budget. Its signalling system remains so riddled with technical hitches that it is already earmarked for a £160 million replacement.
Tube Lines' Morgan acknowledges the financing dilemma, but he clearly believes that the commercial imperative is a great motivator. 'We are in business to generate margin, but some people think that any profit is a drag on money that could be spent on the Underground. But because we are doing well, we generate additional performance as well as profit, and that performance is reinvested. Would I rather get criticised for making a profit than not making one? Too right I would!' Just as well - his firm's pre-tax profit for the year to 31 March was £63.3 million.
Tube Lines is proud of the results it has seen on the Piccadilly and Jubilee lines, where refurbished rolling stock and signalling improvements respectively brought a jump in performance figures. Piccadilly line trains were running at about 5,000km between failures in 2003; now they are bettering 17,000km. Jubilee Line trains have gone from 6,000km to 10,000km between failures. But the ageing, complex and hugely busy Northern Line is a big blot on its record. It remains pretty much where it began three years ago, at 6,500km between failures on average. Plagued even more than the rest of the network by overrunning engineering works, seemingly endemic delays and unscheduled closures, it has long been known as the Misery Line by commuters.
'The Northern Line remains our biggest challenge,' admits Morgan. 'It's a bugger really, everything needs doing - track, signals and fleet improvements. Not like the Piccadilly Line, where the train fleet was the key. The track is crucial though, and we've agreed with London Underground to accelerate track work. You can't get reliable signalling or good fleet performance without good track.'
Back down the tunnels, it is gone 4am and we've moved on to signalling work at Moorgate, site of the Underground's worst disaster in 1975. It's increasingly clear that despite all the investment, this is not going to be a quick fix. Getting it all running properly is the work of years.
Peering into a signal gear room at Moorgate, it's amazing that it works at all. The size of a modest office, it's stacked floor to ceiling with racks of electromechanical relays. There are fragile-looking cables dangling everywhere, it's hot and I am warned not to bump into anything for fear of causing a failure. The whole lot is fronted by a mechanical lever frame that looks positively Victorian. It's beautiful but it belongs in a museum. Yet they run 30 trains an hour, more than many e*quivalent modern systems elsewhere around the world. No wonder that when things go wrong, it so rapidly decends into chaos.
If the Northern Line is Morgan's bete noire, the rest of the network has its systemic issues. Massive overcrowding at peak times is a perennial problem, made worse this summer by record temperatures. Tales like the one about the fainting commuter who remained standing because there was no room to slide gracefully to the carriage floor have abounded. Calls for air conditioning on trains have redoubled, but on the deep-level lines it's a non-starter. There's no room for the equipment, either on the trains or in the tunnels, and even if there were, the massive additional heat generated outside the trains would be impossible to dissipate.
But Tube Lines can take comfort from the fact that it is at least doing better than its opposite number, MetroNet, whose two operating companies manage the rest of the network. This summer has been particularly torrid for MetroNet, with rails buckling in the heat on the District Line and the late re-opening of the Waterloo & City line, closed for a total refurbishment for more than five months. 'Tube Lines has very real successes it can point to,' says London Underground's O'Toole. 'MetroNet is another story; it has had a very grim summer and that comes down to management failures.'
But despite the undeniable progress that is being made in many areas, one uncomfortable fact remains. The elephant in the corner is that the London Underground is getting a lot busier - usage is at a record high of three million passenger journeys a day - and Tube Lines and MetroNet may be running ever faster just to stand still.
As O'Toole puts it: 'The biggest failure of the PPP is a failure of imagination. The planned upgrades will deliver more capacity, but only enough to keep pace with traffic growth. So the current levels of crowding will be maintained rather than reduced.'
And if you're on the platform at Leicester Square at 5.30pm rather than 5.30am, that's not good news.
DEVILISH DETAILS OF THE PUBLIC PRIVATE PARTNERSHIP DEAL
Derived from the simpler Private Finance Initiative, the Tube's Public Private Partnership (PPP) is a set of contracts between London Underground (LU) and the two infrastructure companies (infracos), Tube Lines and MetroNet that defines what LU expects them to deliver. So far, so what? But the first of PPP's many p-p-peculiarities is that it is an output-based contract. Rather than LU asking for five new stations here and 50 new trains there (in the jargon these are inputs and thus off the menu), what the contracts specify instead is based on four basic metrics: lost customer hours (availability and reliability of services); journey time (theoretical time taken to get from point a to point b); ambience (cleanliness); and service points (performance of things like heating and lighting that don't affect the running of trains).
It sounds complicated already, but the real devil is in the detail and there's enough of that in the PPP to hide Beelzebub and the entire satanic host several times over. The documentation stretches to 135 volumes, some 2,800 pages or more than two million words. And it's growing. It's an intellectually heroic but hubristic attempt to imagine every possible combination of cause and effect, action and reaction that might occur at any point on the network - and at any time over the 30-year period the contracts run (although there are four break-points at 7.5-year intervals).
The PPP's big idea is to give private-sector management know-how room to breathe, while retaining a publicly controlled means of holding the infracos to account. Its creation soaked up huge amounts of time and expensive management consultancy brain-power. Fruit of the Treasury's loins, only its daddy, Gordon Brown, really loves the PPP; even the infracos that stand to benefit from PPP's £16 billion largesse dislike its byzantine measurement and control mechanisms.
London Underground's managing director Tim O'Toole's day-to-day experience of dealing with the PPP has not made him a fan. 'It tries to create a self-contained universe. It's hard to manage, rigid and over-complex, but we just have to get on with it.'
Others in the industry are downright hostile. Transport journalist and self-taught PPP expert Christian Wolmar (author of Down the Tube) says: 'The PPP is just a daft way to procure. You can't issue 30-year maintenance contracts, there are just too many variables. Technology moves on, the kind of solutions we wanted when the contracts were drawn up may not be the ones we want in 30 years' time.' Nevertheless, PPP and PFI deals will pay for everything from hospitals and schools to railways in future.