Send in the Browns: London Gets A New Transport Commissioner

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The Mayor and TfL Board have today confirmed the appointment of Mike Brown as Transport Commissioner.

Brown has held the post in a temporary capacity since Sir Peter Hendy’s resignation in July. Before this, he served as Managing Director of London Underground and Rail, a post he took up in 2010 following a period in charge of Heathrow Airport.

In terms of career path, Brown falls broadly within the technocrat category that TfL have strongly favoured in leadership positions in recent years. Whilst (at least to our knowledge) he is unlikely to be found lurking behind the wheel of a bus in the style of Leon Daniels or his predecessor, Brown can boast a considerable depth of knowledge of the inner workings of London Underground.

For his current stretch at TfL is, in fact, his second. Brown first joined London Underground in 1989 as manager of Neasden depot and worked his way up the chain until he was appointed Chief Operating Officer of London Underground in 2003 – a post he held until 2008.

Both that departure, and his subsequent return, weren’t entirely unexpected. As an organisation TfL possesses a penchant for senior officers who spend at least some time out of their immediate transportational comfort zone, as the presence of a small cadre of once-and-future TfL senior staffers in various global transport bodies from Toronto to Melbourne demonstrates. Taken cumulatively though, Brown can boast over twenty years of experience at London Underground.

That experience will likely prove vital in the coming years. As Sir Peter himself commented in our recent interview with Network Rail’s now-Chairman, the Commissioner role is one that practically demands a thorough knowledge of the network and the city it serves:

I don’t completely reject the notion that you can move between different activities as a manager. But this is a very complex city and a very complex place. And without an understanding of the geography and how the systems work I think you are a bit sunk, actually.

It should also act as a counter to fears that the current Mayor might make a more politically focused appointment – something that many felt would be unfair due to the proximity of a mayoral election which Johnson himself won’t be contesting. It would be exceedingly hard to cast Brown in this light. The new Transport Commissioner is very much a TfL “company man” (so to speak) but one who readers with longer memories, or who have witnessed his performances in front of various committees, will know has no qualms about speaking his mind. Indeed during the days of the Private Public Partnerships (PPPs) Brown’s introductions to his board paper submissions were often a particular highlight – his criticisms in them of both Metronet and Tube Lines were often brutal, but never less than honest.

Indeed it is likely no coincidence that it is the former head of London Underground that, of the internal candidates, has emerged successful. Whilst issues of devolution and budgets will come to dominate the mid-to-long-term political and operational transport discussion in London, it is the Underground that is likely to dominate in the short term. The Sub-surface signal contract, the New Tube for London programme, ticket hall and staffing changes and – of course – the Night Tube are all things that carry a risk of both failure and embarrassment should things go badly. Having a Commissioner intimately aware of what has happened so far, as well as the pitfalls to come, may well prove a major positive over the next twelve months at least.

In this regard, it would be no surprise to see another Brown – Nick – shortly confirmed as the permanent occupant of Mike Brown’s previous role (MD of London Underground and Rail). London Underground’s Chief Operating Officer has held the post on an interim basis since Mike Brown advanced to the temporary top job. Relatively new to TfL (although not to the industry), Nick Brown’s rise has been swift, but again his knowledge of the current state of the Underground, as well as his already-established working relationship with the new Transport Commissioner, will likely work in his favour.

Given that TfL’s Chief Press Officer is Mr Matthew Brown, we look forward – with a certain amount of pythonesque pleasure – to the possibility of a future email from Mr Brown confirming that Mr Brown has confirmed Mr Brown.

In the meantime, however, we offer our congratulations to the most senior of Browns on the occasion of his appointment to the post of Transport Commissioner.

Written by John Bull