Tim O’Toole’s departure is not only a great loss for Londoners but a serious blow to Boris Johnson. His departure increases the likelihood of strikes, makes it more difficult to solve the Tube’s financial problems and leaves the system rudderless at a perilous time.
Mr O’Toole might not have solved all the problems London Underground faced when he took over six years ago but he has certainly done far better than anyone hoped. His engaging but quiet personal style won over managers and workforce alike, and enabled him to steer a steady course through the minefield of the Public Private Partnership deal imposed on Ken Livingstone‘s administration by Gordon Brown.
He saw off the threat of strikes, at times appealing to the common sense of staff by going over the heads of the ludicrously confrontational RMT union led by Bob Crow whose style of negotiation recalls the “everybody out” style of Sixties sitcoms.
When he first got the job, he could not start work immediately because the details of the PPP were being finalised so he spent the time roaming the system talking to employees. The experience stood him in good stead as he was trusted by the workforce in a way no previous boss the Underground has been and it ensured that the RMT was unable to paint him as a fat cat manager. When travelling on the Tube with MrO’Toole, it was noticeable how often he was greeted warmly by the staff.
His leadership after the 7/7 attacks was exemplary and he not only calmed Londoners’ fears but ensured that the damaged lines were back working far faster than expected.
He managed to overcome the bankruptcy of Metronet, the PPP contractor, by simply renationalising the work – under a Tory mayor – and most recently he kept much of the Tube system running when snow stopped the buses. On a more mundane level, he has greatly improved information systems for passengers, ensuring that the causes of delays are conveyed quickly and succinctly. Of course there are massive problems simmering below the surface and a potential looming financial crisis as the PPP requires bailing out.
The Mayor, who will unfairly get blamed in some quarters for O’Toole’s departure, will struggle to find anyone able to combine leadership and the common touch in the way the American did.