Ex-CIA man goes underground

SUN JOURNAL

Subway: American Robert Kiley, who performed small miracles in Boston and New York, has taken on the task of improving the world's oldest system - London's Tube

January 29, 2001|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON - Robert Kiley is the subway guy.

Kiley hasn't met a mass transit system that he couldn't fix. He renewed Boston's T and New York's subway, dealing with the conflicting demands of workers, politicians and passengers.

But now, the former CIA official, big-city bureaucrat and New World administrator is tackling an Old World problem. He's dealing with the noisy, crowded wreck of a subway system, the London Underground, known by all as the Tube.

By almost any measure, his job as the first transportation commissioner under London's first democratically elected mayor is a difficult one. Hired in the fall and in his post for less than a month, Kiley is seeking to create order amid a cobweb of tunnels, platforms, cables and trains - a system stitched together from Victorian times to the present.

Why would a 64-year-old American who has performed small miracles in Boston and New York want to risk his reputation in a place such as this?

"I had been out of the transportation business for 10 years," Kiley says. "I guess the old war horse in me responded and thought, `Well, I may not hear that bell again. Why not go for it?' Plus, there was something intriguing about the notion that the three oldest transit systems in the world are London, Boston and New York, in that order. And this would be a three-for."

London is altogether different terrain from New York and Boston - physically and culturally. Even the sports are different, and Kiley, a die-hard Boston Red Sox fan, jokes that before his term is up, he is "determined to figure out what cricket is."

But Kiley is likely to fit in, playing the role of respectful outsider. His mild-mannered style, conservative suits and white hair serve to mask an almost encyclopedic knowledge and passion for subways and number crunching.

He poses the question himself:

"How is an American coming in to do something like this perceived? I think people are very interested in getting problems solved. If an American comes in with what looks like experience that might be relevant, looks like he succeeded in one or two other situations, I think people are pretty practical. I don't think the fact that I'm an outlander is a big problem here."

As commissioner of transport for London, Kiley will oversee the Tube, buses, river services, key roads, traffic lights, taxi licensing and a light railway and tram link.

The big problem is the Tube, an overcrowded and overwhelmed system that for all its faults helps define the character of the city. The general civility of the population helps prevent the system from breaking down. But whether it's leaky tunnels, an exploding rat population, broken escalators or the everyday human chain that emerges up stairs to literally block rush-hour commuters from entering the busy terminal at Victoria Station, the Tube needs a multi-billion-dollar overhaul.

Unlike the Paris Metro, which is a glittering showpiece of French ingenuity backed up by lavish government funding, the Tube symbolizes Britain's penchant for public services on-the-cheap.

The Tube is probably a lot more important to the running of London than perhaps any metropolitan mass transit system is in America.

"There is a more complex and, I would wager, greater dependence on the Tube than [on] the New York subway system," Kiley says. "So many people come into this city each day and are dependent on the Tube to move before they get to work. New York is not as complex."

London's lifeline

The Underground is London's lifeline, a 253-mile system that ferries 3 million passengers daily, employs more than 16,000 and costs more than $1.5 billion a year to operate. To move commuters along 11 lines through 275 stations requires 3,987 subway cars, 408 escalators and 112 elevators. At an average train speed of 20.5 mph, including station stops, taking the Tube is nearly twice as fast as driving a car in London.

London's industrial past and future are visible in the Tube stations - the cut glass and intricate steel of Victorian handiwork mixing with the soaring, cathedral-like spaces opened at the millennium's dawn.

Six months before the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, the Tube's roots were planted in London with a buried 4-mile stretch of track, billed as the world's first underground railway. Through much of the 19th century, lines were built with the "cut and cover method," with workers digging a trench and then covering newly laid tracks with a brick-lined tunnel.

During World War II, many of the Tube stations served as air raid shelters for Londoners trying to survive the Blitz. British Museum treasures were stored in a branch of the Piccadilly line. The Tube was nationalized in 1948 and has been managed by government agencies every since.

The past three decades saw the Tube extended to Heathrow Airport in the west and to the new financial center of Canary Wharf, southeast of central London - part of a 9.9-mile extension of the Jubilee line.

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