Sir Peter Hendy: The Exit Interview

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For almost ten years Sir Peter Hendy has overseen London’s Transport renaissance. As he prepares to depart, we sit down and talk about leadership, politics, London’s future challenges and… of course… buses.

“Have you seen these yet? They’re bloody brilliant. We’ve been trying to get them right for ages.”

It’s an abrupt start to the conversation, but nearly all our previous conversations have started a similar way. On entering TfL’s board room the speaker’s eye has immediately been drawn to something technical to do with day-to-day transport operations. In this case, the pile of posters scattered on the table at the back of the room, clearly leftover from a design presentation the night before.

Soon we are both examining a sample. At first glance, the heavy fabric poster seems no different from any other that might be seen on the walls of a work site. Up close, however, it becomes clear that the material is lighter, whilst still feeling strong, and is also pierced by thousands of tiny holes.

“They stop them getting whipped up by the wind and ripped away.” The speaker explains. “Sounds like it should be simple, doesn’t it? Just poke some bloody holes in the material! But finding something that both looks good and is durable has been hard work.”

A casual observer to this conversation might assume that the smartly dressed man, with neat closely cropped hair and thin-rimmed glasses, is responsible in some way for TfL’s design arm. Or is perhaps in charge of an operations department or works project. They’d be correct – although not in the way they suspected.

The speaker is in fact Sir Peter Hendy, London’s Transport Commissioner. The man responsible for running the capital’s vast and ever-growing system of Tubes, trams, trains, buses, bikes and more. He is one of the most powerful and influential men in the city and, certainly in the 150 year history of the Underground, one of the most successful leaders the network has had (the honorific is not hereditary. He was knighted for services to transport and the community in 2013).

“Nine years, five and a half months.” he says, proudly, when I ask him how long it has now been. “I’ve done it longer than anyone else since Lord Ashfield by some considerable margin – I remember working it out for your christmas quiz a few years back!” His time at the top, however, has now come to an end. As we speak Sir Peter has just resigned, having agreed to a request by the Government to take over as chairman of struggling national infrastructure firm Network Rail.

A long time at the top

“Leaving this place is a great wrench actually.” He admits. “I’m glad it’s happening quickly because I don’t think I’d be able to cope with it happening slowly.”

For nearly a decade Sir Peter has been as much of a consistent presence in the world of London transport as TfL itself. Indeed it is no coincidence that the organisation he has led has come to reflect many of his own priorities and beliefs, shaped (not without occasional bouts of controversy) by his hands-on, intensive style as Commissioner.

“If you do it the way I want to do it,” he explains of his approach to the role, “then it’s every day. I do a text every morning, of every day of the year, to Boris [ Johnson, Mayor of London] and copy it around to loads of people about what’s going on on the network. Someone else could do it, but I think it’s very important.

“My style of leadership is to make sure the Mayor knows what he needs to know, and to make sure that all the people who work for me know that I’ve told the Mayor what he needs to know.” He continues. “That has its own pressure. If there’s overrunning engineering works on a Monday – which there aren’t very often now – I’ll tell him. And I’ll tell everyone here that I’ve told him.”

That style, it turns out, is one of the reasons why the thought of moving on was something that had begun to creep into his mind even before the Network Rail offer came.

“I’m sixty two and a half,” he says, honestly, “and the one thing I’ve worked out is you can’t do this job at half speed. In my heart I was just beginning to wonder just how long I could keep it up.”

Moments of change

Regardless of what the future brings, Sir Peter’s time, first as head of Surface Transport and then as Commissioner, has encompassed an enormous amount of change. Much of that – the rise in Tube usage, the construction of Crossrail, the growth of London Overground – is obvious even to the most infrequent user of the transport network, as are the drivers for it. Not all of the moments which have shaped London have been quite so explicit, however. I ask Sir Peter which key moments he feels are sometimes overlooked.

“Congestion charging was obviously a huge step.” He says, without hesitation. “Ken [Livingston, former Mayor] was brave. Derek Turner [former MD of Street Management] was brave.”

Interestingly, however, it is not the primary objective of the charge – the reduction of traffic – which Sir Peter sees as the game-changer.

“It meant we got the money and had the incentive to change the bus service.” He explains.

“That did a whole load of things at once.” He says, ticking items off an imaginary list. “That changed the way people moved in the centre of the city. It afforded the opportunity for real public realm schemes in a way that we’d never done it before. And we put on something like a hundred and fifty buses at once. We put on the 148 and several new routes.

“We made a real difference.”

That difference is hard to dispute. Since he first rejoined TfL as head of that very bus network in 2001, general ridership in London has grown 60% whilst the use of night buses has doubled. Last year, London’s buses saw more than 2.4 billion passenger journeys. Not just more than any other city in Britain, but more than everywhere else in England combined.

Whilst there were already signs of growth when the Congestion Charge was introduced in 2003, it is this that Sir Peter credits, at least in part, for kicking off such an epochal change.

“At that moment, I think the bus service, at least for middle and upper class people in central London, changed from something that you avoided to something you would use.

“The general transformation of the bus service from something which was, by and large, regulated by cost – the cheapest possible cost – to something that set out to carry everybody who presented themselves in the peaks has been a huge difference.”

If the Congestion Charge is one financial change which has been key to the current shape of life in the city then it is not not the only one.

“Oh God and the PPP!” He says, referring to the disastrous attempts by the Government to force funding of London’s infrastructure improvements to happen via Public Private Partnerships. “There’s several defining moments there. I mean, in a way the PPP was the defining moment!”

“I don’t know what would happen if you asked Ken now,” he explains, “but actually most people recognise that although the structure was wrong, the establishment of long term funding was a really good thing to do.

“Now as it happened it didn’t work out, and actually taking it out was also a good thing to do. But since we left the long term funding and took away the nonsense of the contractual detritus that surrounded it, actually that’s transformed the Tube.

“It’s transformed the Tube from a management point of view, as they got control back. From a ‘what can we do?’ point of view so that you can see a long term plan. And actually taking the PPP back in two chunks, and having a long term investment plan, has been the reason why people now think that we can do the things we can do.

“Because, as you know,” he continues, “the Jubilee line signalling? My God that was hard! But it’s finished. The Northern line wasn’t hard at all and it’s finished. The Victoria line is finished. People notice the difference. And then on the back of that the management has been able to give full attention to reducing delays and making the place work better. And it has.”

Given the timing of his resignation, and the conversation, it is perhaps unsurprising that Sir Peter’s third key moment is a more tragic one – the 7th July bombings of 2005.

“If you remember Madrid, where they had those terrible train bombings and it all stopped for a week, the Government fell over.” He explains, with a clear mix of sadness for those lost and pride in those working that day. “But we didn’t close the place down for a week. We got going again.

“And getting it running again was an achievement actually.” He continues. “I’ll tell the full story some other time, but in the end we started the bus service without any permission from anybody. I said to [then Transport Commissioner Bob] Kiley: ‘if we don’t start getting people home this city is going to be full of people at midnight’ because the Tube couldn’t run.

“And the fact that the staff came back in,” he says, with clear emotion, “and that it all started again the following morning, was… well, it was a pretty good moment for this place.

“And actually out of that we got acclamation for the ordinary people who do the job on the trains and buses in a way that people had not recognised up until that point. And that’s pretty good for us – not for me – for us. It took a lot of courage to go back after all that happened.”

Understanding the network

Sir Peter’s comments touch on one of the subjects on which he is almost singularly placed to comment – just what is the current relationship between Commissioner and staff, and what should it be? Should the Commissioner be politician or engineer? Should they be both?

“Look not everybody can do everything” He says, firmly. “That’s the truth of it. I’m not an engineer. I don’t pretend to be an engineer. I do think two things though.

First, when I was a young man here most… well, nearly all of the senior management avoided using the product like the bloody plague. We had fleets of cars and chauffeurs and they didn’t use it in the way that ordinary Londoners used it. And they’d also lost touch with the people who provide the service. And I think it is really important. The attitude of the staff on the Tube is about how they’re managed as much as it is about how they are treated by the public and what they are asked to do. And if your management aren’t in touch with that I think it’s not very good frankly. It’s a hard job driving a bus, and if you don’t realise it’s a hard job and it’s not particularly well paid…I think the management ought to recognise what you’re doing.

“The other thing I think is 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’s not just technical.”

He stops and thinks for a while before continuing.

“Look,” he says, passionately, “They’re big, big jobs running the Tube and running the Overground. So actually, when we sit round this table, I demand that the people that do those jobs do them properly. Their demand in return is that the place has got some leadership, that it’s got a handle on the politics, that it presents itself in a way that supports the organisation. And it’s a mixture of those roles actually.”

Handling the politics

Handling the politics is, of course, another topic on which Sir Peter is uniquely placed to comment. He is the only Commissioner to have worked under two different Mayors. Indeed were it not for the speed of his departure he would likely have been seeing in a third. I ask what challenges the mayoral elections bring, and whether managing the shifting politics is hard.

“I never thought that was particularly difficult, actually.” He says. “When Boris was elected we wrote down everything he said. And the first time I went to see him I said: ’Here’s a list of what we can do today – because that’s what politicians want to do – here’s a list of things we can do in a bit. Here’s the list of things that are more difficult. And here’s a little list of the things you probably shouldn’t have said and that we’re going to find bloody difficult. I didn’t say weren’t going to do them – but that we’ll find really difficult.”

“But the thing is,” he says, with a smile, “The rest of it still runs, doesn’t it? The rest of it still runs! Camden Town station still opens at 5:30 in the morning after a mayoral election and people go there expecting to get a train! And actually if you look at the Mayor’s Transport Strategy as evidence, the one that’s written in 2010 is not terribly different in philosophical terms to 2002. And the reason for that is quite a lot of what this place has to do is about economic growth, and jobs and housing.

“And that’s the same with every Mayor!” He laughs. “They might want to do more of it and in different places. But it’s the same stuff.

“Politicians want to do things, that’s why they go into politics. We want to do things too. Sometimes they don’t realise what we’re trying to do. Sometimes we don’t realise what they’re trying to do. You’ve got to have a bit of a go at it.”

“They need things to champion of course.” He admits. “So the drinking ban? That’s alright. We’ll do that. Why wouldn’t you? I didn’t find any of that particularly difficult. I still get asked questions about taking articulated buses out. They weren’t mine anyway – they belonged to the leasing companies and there’s still a few of them knocking about.”

His apparently pragmatic approach to TfL’s political masters is not one that has always existed, as he’s prepared to admit.

“I remember London Transport when it was responsible to the GLC [Greater London Council]” He says. “It wasn’t anarchic, but LT was deliberately evasive. They treated the GLC with utter disdain. They told it as little as possible, got in its way as much as possible and… and, I mean, why would you do that? What’s the point of that?! What does it do for the organisation?! You think you’re at war with the people who give you the money? That’s not very bright is it?!

“Now what I think in return is that I expect the Mayor to argue for the organisation, if we do a good job. If we don’t do a good job then we better fix it. That seems to me to be a reasonable bargain.”

An agent of change

Sir Peter points to one clear example of where recognising the overlap between a political demand and a transport need has had a huge impact – cycling initiatives.

“I don’t think anybody thought that a dull old transport organisation would say: ‘Yup! okay! we’re into public space and cycling! Let’s go!” He says. “But I remember standing on the north terrace of Trafalgar Square with Derek Turner in 2003 after it was paved over. And I remember thinking ‘Actually this is bloody brilliant for this city! Nobody is ever going to stand up and say ‘actually we want it back as a road.’

“Now it hasn’t been easy, and it isn’t popular with everybody, but actually, it has proved that the corporate mind of this place can embrace new ideas. Bike hire? Yeah, okay. Why not? Let’s go and do it. Give us the money.”

There’s one other area in which TfL have clearly been both influential and transformative – the digital revolution in both information and fares.

“The information revolution I take no credit for at all.” He says. “Because when Boris told us to do open data in 2009 I was very skeptical indeed. I thought we’d have a load of lunatics doing apps which predicted the bus service wrong.”

“And I was completely wrong.” He admits.

“When I left First Group at the end of 2000,” he continues, “they said ‘what do you want as a leaving present?’ I said for God’s sake give me one of those pagers that the guards have on the Great Western, so that I know whether my train is going to run or not. Because they knew, but the passengers didn’t. Now you can find it all on a smartphone. And that’s fantastic, isn’t it? Why shouldn’t our staff have [tablets and smartphones] and find out what’s going on on the network. Why can’t our passengers find out?”

On the subject of smart ticketing, he is equally effusive.

“We’re in the vanguard of the retail sector in terms of how people pay.” He says. “We’ve had John Lewis come here and ask how we’ve got so many people moving into contactless payment so quickly. That’s not a bad place to be for a dull old public service organisation.”

Given his new role at Network Rail, we can’t help but ask whether he feels that TfL have so far been responsible for dragging the railway industry into the world of smart ticketing, rather than it being a group effort.

“I think it’s sad that it’s taken so long to get national rail on the same page.” He says. “But there’s signs that it’s getting there. I think it’s self evident that asking people to turn ordinary currency into your own paper tickets and Oyster is ludicrous when actually you don’t need any of it and just want to go and pay.

“The national railway is behind the curve on that. But it’s getting there. There’s a new attitude there now which, yeah, I think we’d quietly like to take a bit of credit for.”

As we near the end of our conversation, we turn back to the subject of the role of the Commissioner – what challenges await both TfL and the next occupant of the post?

“The biggest challenge here is population growth.” He says, firmly. “Getting people to jobs and building houses. And that’s an accelerating challenge. One of the reasons why I think it isn’t a land grab – it’s a no brainer – that we have more influence over the suburban railway service in London is that the only way, apart from Crossrail, that we’re going to get what will be nine million people by 2018 shifting around this place is to make everything that the city has got work really well.”

London’s transport network last faced a similar challenge during its so-called pre-Second World War “golden age.” Its successful navigation of this period was at least in part down to the two men then at its head – Frank Pick, the organiser, and Lord Ashfield, the greaser of wheels. I ask Sir Peter if he feels the challenge, and the balance of skills needed to meet it, are the same now.

“Pick was an administrator of the highest order.” He replies. “Ashfield was a consummate politician and managed to create a unified public corporation out of disparate elements. Oh, and strip the LCC of its tramways, which was quite a feat actually!

“And now? It’s not the same, because it’s the modern age and there are many public sector organisations. But… the general concept of some strategic leadership for the city and an organisation that delivers it is about as close as you’re going to get, I think.

“And I think what’s really important is that it’s not just us – TfL – that’s been successful at that. It’s the city that’s been successful. You can put a lot of that down to having a strategic political leader who has a vision, who is obliged to have – through the London Plan and the Transport Strategy – a strategic vision for the development of the city.

“If you don’t have a vision it’s just an operation. And Pick and Ashfield were forming Greater London in the absence of any other political leadership, really.

“It was rather easier for them, of course!” He laughs, “You just built the Piccadilly line to Cockfosters! But the parallels are quite acute because a lot of that was done with money from the government to relieve unemployment, so it was done for some other purpose.”

Strategic vision and an understanding of how to carry it out, then, are what he feels are key. Stepping back and looking at both his comments and his actions, however, it is impossible to shake the suspicion that what has made Sir Peter so successful as a Commissioner is his ability to play Pick or Ashfield as the situation demands. Just as hard as it is imagining Frank Pick sitting down with Boris Johnson to discuss his political needs, it is equally hard to imagine Ashfield walking into a room and talking excitedly about the minutiae of poster manufacture.

I point out to him that he may not be an engineer, but he is still 100% busman. A man whose first job in London Transport was as a graduate trainee, who has worked on the buses, who is still licensed to drive them and who owns a classic London Routemaster.

“One and a half buses now actually!” he says, beaming, “Me and Leon [Daniels, current Head of Surface Transport] each half own an RT!”

At that moment all talk of current transport is forgotten. Picture proof is requested and swiftly offered whilst conversation turns to the history of both the RT in general and this bus in particular – RTW467, the last one in service. It also prompts what is, to me, an important question – will he still be driving buses at Imber?

The Imber Bus

Since 2009, for one day only in August every year, a vintage bus service operates from Warminster in Wiltshire, to the abandoned village of Imber on Salisbury Plain. The combination of classic buses and the haunting, empty buildings of Imber (which was taken over by the MoD during the Second World War and never reoccupied) makes it a truly unique event. One made even more special by the fact that few families or enthusiasts who make the trip likely realise that one of the volunteers driving those buses is, in fact, Sir Peter himself.

“Absolutely!“ He says, confirming his intentions, “Imber is a magical place.”

“Everyone’s fascinated by lost villages, and some time ago some bus industry friends and I decided we’d try to run a bus service, a real bus service, to one of them. The first year was hard – the MoD were suspicious and the route was hard to register as there are no intermediate timing points, but we managed it, and it was a success. This year is year seven!”

“I think what makes it a special day out,” he continues, “is that it’s a real bus service – real stops, proper timetable, tickets, all the buses have proper blinds and a faretable… and Imber is a lovely place, the church is well worth a visit, and the terrain on the way is unlike anything anywhere else in England.”

Eventually, a quiet cough from his staff reminds us that, for a few more days at least, he still has a transport network to run. As we snap back to reality and gather our things, I can’t help but comment that he’s leaving a very large pair of boots for his successor to fill.

“O’Toole said once,” He replies, thoughtfully, referring to the former MD of London Underground, “and he was absolutely right, that you get given this thing for a bit and you better give it to someone else when you’ve finished a bit better than when you found it.

“And that’s right, actually, there are no superheroes in this.” He pauses, and looks up one final time at the posters and pictures scattered around the walls.

“But it’ll be quite hard to leave behind.”

This article first feature in LR Magazine Issue 1. You can purchase this issue or subscribe to the magazine in our online shop.

Written by John Bull