Photo: Peter Reina
Ian OKelly

Travelers are long gone from London's vast, aging "Underground" metro in the early hours when Ian O'Kelly arrives at Chalk Farm station, now populated only by construction workers.

As an implementation manager for the Tube Lines consortium, he oversees an average of $80 million a year of work progressively renewing 320 km of track.

At the far end of Chalk Farm's platform, a huddle of men in the tunnel mouth have exposed an uncharted power line and are breaking out old concrete more slowly than usual. Tonight, that subcontractor's team of 25 workers will replace three sleepers and supports—normally they do four, notes Mark Edwards, one of O'Kelly's senior construction managers. Almost everything must be done manually and time is limited, he explains.

"It took me a few months to understand the environment," says O'Kelly, who joined Tube Lines a year ago. Space was more abundant in his previous project, the mutli-billion dollar upgrade of the 640 km West Coast Main line. "Logistics…is what this is all about."

O'Kelly, 42, started his night shift at his East London office preparing for a 10:30 pm meeting with some 20 managers and supervisors. He overseas around 80 Tube Lines staff members, and up to 800 subcontractors' workers.

The manager addresses his team with ease, partially acquired during a stint as manufacturing manager with an aerospace components maker. The meeting starts with his account of Tube Lines' new project management strategy.


A Day in the Life of Ian O'Kelly

"We are working on a business model that makes us principal contractor," O'Kelly explains. That means shifting control from around a dozen track subcontractors, he tells his team. "They have heard all sorts of stories," he adds later.

With the meeting done, well after midnight O'Kelly heads west, to the city center and Euston Station. Half way, he spots workers milling around parked vehicles outside a station. "There are the Metronet boys waiting to go to work," he says.

The Metronet joint venture, handling the rest the Underground's infrastructure, is in dispute over cost overruns with the owner, London Underground Ltd. "A lot of my ex-colleagues are at Metronet," he says, sympathizing with them.

O'Kelly is a railroad man back to his days as a 16-year-old apprentice in Dublin, Ireland, his home town. "I can remember grinding a crankshaft," he says. At 22 he moved to London and spent a decade in the aerospace industry. Around 1998, he became a manager with the contractor Amey plc., London, on its maintenance contract covering a large area of railroad west of London.

Photo: Peter Reina
Workers dig out sleeper supports on night shift in busy London Underground.

When a train wreck in 2000 was attributed to what at the time was a little understood phenomena, "gauge corner" cracking, railroad owner Railtrack plc. imposed speed restrictions, causing nationwide traffic chaos. "A lot of my experience has been in metallurgy [so] I…very quickly put mitigation in place in my area," remembers O'Kelly. "I met Bechtel that way". When Bechtel Inc. was later hired to help manage work on the West Coast Main Line, it recruited O'Kelly, last year moving him to Tube Lines.

Tube Lines, owned by Amey and Bechtel, has a 30-year finance, maintain and upgrade contract for tunnels, stations and trains over one third of the Underground. Starting in 2002, the firm must complete nearly $9 billion of work in the first 7.5 years.

One of Underground's major hubs is Euston station, where O'Kelly and Edwards arrive, aiming for a tunnel welding site. But the safety official has gone down track, and without approval, nobody walks on the line.

LUL's safety regime is strict. Just to follow O'Kelly on a shift means going through two hours' safety induction. High among work hazards identified were discarded syringes and rats carrying liver disease.

Disappointed, O'Kelly returns to his car and heads north to Chalk Farm, another of his 25 sites.

Earlier, O'Kelly happily recalled extensive line closures Tube Lines had been allowed for its upgrade of 10.4 km of the Northern Line. "We've just completed 40 consecutive weekends on…one of the busiest lines in Europe," he says. Managing that piece of infrastructure had been "like nursing a geriatric." But such access is a luxury. Elsewhere, time for work is short, space restricted and equipment unhelpful.

At Chalk Farm, workers are pushing trolley-loads of bagged, fast-setting concrete to a placing team waiting for men with breakers to remove old sleeper supports. It's obvious why renewing one of the world's oldest, biggest and busiest metros is a costly business.

O'Kelly holds impromptu meetings as he passes along the platform. When the business ends, he returns to the street. An urban fox meanders through nearby gardens as he sets off home, with a hint of sunrise behind him.