Rail Industry Focus


Achieving the ‘unthinkable dream’: lessons from the Northern Line upgrade

Source: RTM Apr/May 15

The resignalling of the Northern Line has won many plaudits in recent months, after its successful completion a year ago – ahead of time, under budget and with performance outputs better than expected. In this interview with some of the key players, RTM looks at the factors that led to the eventual success, and the lessons for the upcoming Sub-Surface Railway resignalling. We spoke to London Underground head of automatic train control Andy Bourne; LU’s then programme director of capacity upgrades, Stuart Harvey; Thales programme director Andy Bell; and Thales chief engineer for the upgrade, Andrew Hunter.

The consecutive upgrades of the signalling and control of London Underground’s (LU’s) Jubilee Line then Northern Line was part of one extensive project, known as JNUP – the Jubilee and Northern Upgrade Project. 

It is a story of two halves. Most readers will be familiar with the problems that haunted the Jubilee resignalling, which came in late and massively over-budget, having become notorious for constant weekend closures. Some of this was a hangover of failures in the old PPP (public-private partnership) model, ditched when Tube Lines was folded into Transport for London in 2010. There were also inevitable technology issues when implementing a modern TBTC (transmission-based train control) system onto an extremely busy metro line, but also conflicts centred on contracts, behaviours, and people. 

While the situation was improving by the end of the Jubilee Line upgrade (and the eventual performance has been exemplary) the key players were determined to learn lessons and deliver the Northern Line project in a very different – and more collaborative – way. 

Thales and LU people managed to come together as ‘one team’, sharing resources and experience, using the best person for the job, trusting each other and working in close physical proximity too. 

The chronic closures that were a feature of the Jubilee Line upgrade became a thing of the past, with the Northern Line resignalling seeing far more off-site testing, better assurance and sign-off processes, and smart use of an innovative change-over methodology to more easily switch between the legacy and new system during testing. 

Thales’ chief engineer for the project, Andrew Hunter, who has more than eight years of experience as the company’s chief signalling engineer, and five years as head  of engineering at Siemens Transportation before that, told us the closures on Jubilee were never a technical requirement – “that was the way the contract was managed”. 

Indeed, on the Northern Line, the resignalling was achieved “pretty much unnoticed by the general public”, he said – a rare compliment for such a complex upgrade. “Technically what we’ve got is a robust, reliable system. We learnt our lessons from the Jubilee Line, and we had the chance to improve the system and improve our delivery capability.” 

Andy Bourne, head of ATC (automatic train control) and the former head of upgrades for LU, said the old PPP system of ‘buying’ a closure had failed to factor in the true cost to the people of London. “The Jubilee Line [upgrade] ended up with hundreds of closures to try to get the system right. We were determined, when we set the Northern Line contract going, that we weren’t going to repeat that.” 

Thales had already heard the “reputational message” on those closures, he suggested, and worked hard to find solutions – including beefing up its simulators in Toronto, making better use of the testing facility at Highgate, and doing more shadow running where the new control systems on-board the trains were switched on but not actually controlling anything. 

“That meant we had a lot more certainty when we turned on the system and went live in a given section, that it would work well from day one,” Bourne said. 


Thales’ programme director Andy Bell said: “We’re hugely proud to have been part of the successful Northern Line upgrade. It’s been a challenging project, but I think the results speak for themselves. The project was delivered six months early, significantly under budget, and the performance of the railway has been excellent – since it’s gone live, it’s exceeded all expectations and is top of the performance charts in terms of reliability.” 

The project has won and been shortlisted for a number of major rail and project management awards, both in the UK and at the European level, and in February 2015 won the ‘Signalling and Telecoms’ category at the UK Rail Industry Awards, organised by RTM. 

LU’s Stuart Harvey is now the programme director for the Sub-Surface Upgrade Programme, but before that held a number of senior Tube Lines and LU roles working on JNUP. 

He remains exultant at the achievement on Northern Line. “It was the unthinkable dream, an unimaginable dream. People might think we must have set ourselves a conservative programme or conservative price, but we really didn’t.” 

Bourne agreed, saying: “As we finished the Jubilee Line in mid-2011, we’d all had a really hard time getting that project in. The Northern Line looked even more complicated, even though we’d done it once before by that point. We thought we’d be doing really well if we delivered it on time.” 

‘One team’ 

Bourne said the ‘one team’ approach ensured a “true problem-solving environment”, where Thales and LU helped with each other’s problems, rather than creating problems for each other. 

Bell explained: “Both Thales and LU realised that, on what is a complex engineering project where you’re integrating with lots of other systems and stakeholders, with complex logistics, that a collaborative model was really the only way to succeed. Right from when Tube Lines was transferred back into LU, which changed the dynamic, we set out to try to build a collaborative arrangement.” 

Since the people were fundamentally the same as those who had delivered the Jubilee Line upgrade, it was the behaviours that had to change. 

“We were able to introduce a culture whereby we were all working together to the same goals and objectives. It didn’t happen overnight: it took leadership and learning about each other’s capabilities, building respect and trust. Now, we’re co-located in an office, and you wouldn’t know who’s Thales and who’s LU,” Bell said. 

That has been a “tremendous way of doing things”, Hunter said, with problems solved in 20 minutes over a cup of tea, rather than over two weeks and multiple meetings and emails. 

Harvey called it a “true step-change in collaboration for the industry”. He said: “With a systems project like signalling, the client, LU, has as much to do as the contractor: it has to deliver enabling works, get the trains fitted out, and so on. You have to have a partnership and collaboration.” 

Change-over methodology & SelTrac 

JNUP was the first major ‘brownfield’ rather than new-build implementation of Thales’ proven SelTrac TBTC system. So the key was getting it installed and tested during night-time engineering hours, and making it easy to switch back and forth to the legacy system.

The innovation that made this much smoother and quicker was the change-over cubicle, used first on Jubilee but also on Northern. 

Hunter said: “If you’ve only got four hours – or not even four hours – for testing, and take an hour to set up, and an hour to reset at the end of the shift, you’ve only got two hours for work. The change-over methodology allowed us to cut that time down to 15 minutes at the end of each shift, to maximise the actual test time. It was a great innovation and worked very well for us.” 

It was important that the SelTrac implementation was kept as similar as possible across both line upgrades. That was easier said than done, Hunter admitted: “We worked very hard to keep it the same, but when you start looking at your interfaces and the practical application on the railway, there were some challenging technical issues to sort out.” 

The apparent similarities between the Jubilee 1996 stock and Northern 1995 stock mask “significant differences underneath”, Hunter said, while Northern also had complex depot interfaces and operating interfaces, especially at Camden and Kennington. “We worked very hard to keep the technical solution stable, but it still had to be extended and interfaced to do some really quite complicated things,” he said. 

Hunter joked that on the Northern Line, so much planning and rehearsing went into each commissioning that anyone watching would have felt it “almost a letdown”, because everything went so smoothly and just as it did during testing. 

“It’s the upfront planning and rehearsing and organisation and drilling and discipline that gets you there. You don’t want surprises on the day. We had contingency plans as long as your arm just in case things did go wrong, and we rehearsed and practiced them well in advance.” 

Harvey added: “You have to remember, we were working on quite a fragile railway, with a very old signalling system. It’s not like we were refreshing something that was only just out-of-life: this was fragile stuff and wasn’t easy.” 

How close is too close? 

When LU cancelled Bombardier’s contract to resignal the sub-surface railway (SSR) lines – the Circle, District, Hammersmith & City, and Metropolitan – it was not hard to guess that LU would end up turning to Thales, which indeed was the only company to submit a tender. 

There are obvious benefits to having a close relationship, with shared history (before JNUP, there was the implementation of SelTrac on the Docklands Light Railway in the mid-1990s, and the Connect radio communications contract, a 20-year PFI that runs until 2019, for example). But there are dangers in becoming too reliant on one supplier. Bourne said: “We’re governed by EU procurement rules, so we can’t just award contracts to one supplier, however much we like them. Thales has a good product, but it doesn’t mean it will necessarily always be the best product around. We are committed to continuing to look to the market to come up with innovative solutions. 

“Having said that, we recognise that we are in a situation where Thales is a very important supplier. That means we have to deal with them on a much more strategic level.” 

That includes, he said, bringing all the Thales-facing contracts and workstreams within LU together in one place, to find economies of scale and ensure strategic co-ordination.  

Bell said: “For us, it isn’t just about installing a signalling system and walking away. We’re committed to a long-term relationship with LU, and if they decide that covers more than the Jubilee and Northern lines, that’s their ultimate decision. 

“It’s particularly pleasing that our good delivery track record and the relationship we’ve built up with LU on Northern Line has hopefully stood us in good stead for future contracts – SSR and so on. We plan to take the team that has successfully delivered Northern and move them across to SSR.” 

The Thales team was also involved in the December 2014 timetable upgrade, which helped to fully realise the benefits of the resignalling. A series of smaller works, such as decommissioning projects, carry on this year. There are also opportunities to release more capacity and reduce headway. 

Further in the future is the ‘NLU2’ project, involving more drastic changes to the timetable, fleet and stations, and the potential split of the line into two (more on page 18). 

Bell said the team’s capability, expertise and knowledge of LU signalling infrastructure was “probably unrivalled in London”. 

Workforce safety 

Hunter said the project was completed with an accident frequency rate of zero, with a FWI (fatalities and weighted injuries) rate that was “an order of magnitude better than industry norms”. 

Bell and Bourne both emphasised how central safety was to the key players, and said the ‘one team’ approach helped ensure it was at the top of the agenda. “A good safety track record goes hand-in-hand with a well-organised project,” Bell said. 

Bourne said it was important that the ‘one team’ approach was a reality on-site, not just back at the office. “People have legal and contractual responsibilities, but everything we can do to make things safe is important. I’m very proud of our safety record.” 

Hunter said Thales’s internal safety structure make it very easy to escalate any issues. 

Andrew Hunter in action

Project management 

A wide variety of reporting tools and business management systems were used, including a risk register, project dashboard, project data repository sheet, Primavera for budget and schedule planning, COBRA for ‘earned value’ management, DOORS to capture and manage requirements, MIDAS for document control, Chorus 2.0 for internal business management at Thales, Rational ClearQuest for document configuration and change control, and SAP for procurement, manufacturing and inventory control. 

Standardised practices across Thales, based on the Chorus process-set, also made it easy for engineers based anywhere in the world to join the project team and immediately understand the way everything worked. “It’s standard across the company and cuts down on mobilisation time. It’s very effective,” Hunter said. 

Contract and commercial management 

The JNUP contract was originally NEC 3 option C (target price with an activity schedule and a 50% uncapped pain/gain share), but there were a number of ‘supplemental agreements’ later on the Jubilee Line upgrade, with the target price removed, caps added and bonus milestones included. The Northern Line element reverted to something much closer to the original option C conditions. TfL’s 2013 audit of the commercial management arrangements found them “well controlled” and found no issues. 

NEC contract types have a clause committing the parties to work together “in a spirit of mutual trust and co-operation”. 

Bourne said: “There were never really any points where the contract ‘got in the way’. You have to have a bit of a demarcation so you can resolve commercial issues, but even that you can do in a way that recognises each other’s problems and recognises that if I try to ‘win’ a particular commercial argument, it will rebound on me the next time something goes wrong when I might need something from my supplier. 

“Dealing with them in a fair way is important. If you think you can do it by banging on the table and trying to ‘get one over’ on your supplier (or your customer), that maybe has benefits in the short term, but in the long term it will work against you. It’s almost like a marriage: you have to sort out your differences.” 

Bell said: “With a collaborative relationship, working together, you have to have all the factors there to support that: the technology, the relationships, the commercial management. All of those elements came together and were a success.” 

Bourne added: “We learnt on the Jubilee Line that when you’re delivering a complicated system like TBTC onto an existing railway, you can’t do it in an awkward relationship with your supplier. We have to help each other solve problems. We learnt that at the tail end of Jubilee, and it started to gel properly as we went towards the Olympics. “We had this massive common goal for the whole UK, with everyone’s reputations on the line. All the stops got pulled out, and with the success of that, we started to believe that working in this way could deliver results. People started going the extra mile. 

“[One team] doesn’t mean that you throw away your procedures or that you [ignore] safety, or that you throw the contract in the bin – but it does mean you move it to one side so it isn’t centre-stage and dominating everybody’s thinking. We’ve learnt that it is possible to deal with contractual issues in such a way that it doesn’t poison the relationship. You then get into a virtuous circle, so when things do crop up – and there always are challenges and problems – there’s a willingness to resolve them together, because you know you’re in it together. That becomes self-reinforcing.” 

Impressing the right people 

The Jubilee Line upgrade was tough to deliver, but once complete it was widely seen to perform very well. The Northern Line upgrade has impressed far and wide for both its delivery and its outputs. 

Bourne said: “Within TfL, it makes the case very strongly that it is worth investing money in the Underground. It’s quite powerful, in our discussions with funders. It’s been an important factor: invest money in us, and we will deliver.”

Tell us what you think – have your say below or email [email protected]


Jim The Pendant   16/05/2015 at 18:52

The first photo does not show the Northern Line. Sorry.

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