Howard Collins “the Tube man”, as London mayor Boris Johnson called him, counts himself a lucky man. After 35 years with London Transport, he is delighted to wake up each morning in his house overlooking the sea in the south Sydney suburb of Woolooware – bought in blithe defiance of the city’s postcode snobbery – and catch an early train to Central.
And neither union battles, nor early criticism of his $500,000-plus salary, nor the gargantuan challenge of dragging Sydney’s antiquated railways into the 21st century can spoil his enthusiasm. At that stage in a solid career, when some might begin ticking off the years to retirement, the chief executive of Sydney Trains is a man invigorated by a new adventure.
“I love it here. I love it,” he tells me over breakfast at the Mercure Sydney, a bland four-star hotel a convenient hop from his office. “When people ask how long are you going to be here, I say forever, if people want me to stay. If you’re going to have an important role, probably there aren’t many places as significant as Sydney.”
This city is on the cusp of working extremely well or gridlocked disaster because it hasn’t invested enough in public transport, and he’s here under NSW Transport Minister Gladys Berejiklian to make sure it takes the first option.
Eighteen months into the job, Collins is clear-eyed about the slog ahead. Fixing Sydney rail will take billions of dollars and five to 10 years, he says.
I say Collins and I are having breakfast, but that’s an exaggeration. So far he’s had one bite of what looks like fruit bread. We’ve been here since 7.15am and the brown and cream dining room is filling up with tourists loading their plates at the buffet but all we have on our table are two bland cappuccinos (mine nearly finished and Collins’s getting cold) and two side plates of pastry thingies (Collins doesn’t even have jam).
Since arriving on the dot of time, his name badge pinned to his orange and blue Sydney Trains tie, London-born Collins has been on a roll telling me his life story. He’s barely sat down before I know about the formative childhood years he spent in Trinidad before his British parents shipped him back home to school, age 11. That adventure gave him the taste for this many decades later, he says, although it may also be genetic. His father remarried and started a new life in New Zealand at 75, leaving his son his rebuilt 1951 Vincent Rapide motorbike, which Collins has brought with him to Australia.
He is well into describing his early years at London Transport – which he joined straight out of school because he wanted the money to buy a motorbike – when the photographer interrupts to suggest we get some food on the table for the sake of his photographs. Collins jumps up, slim and lively, but then admits he’s eaten: three Weet-Bix at 5am, his usual breakfast.
“I’m not one of your gastronomic guests,” he confesses. Take today, he’s got a couple of hours spare in Sydney satellite Campbelltown and “the temptation is to tuck into lunch at the RSL, or whatever” but he’d rather use the time visiting staff. Although he has fallen in love with banana bread since moving here. “That’s toasted, no butter.”
But back to London Transport, where Collins did every job from sweeping platforms to driving trains before he was appointed the youngest ever area manager at 25 and, most recently, chief operating officer of London Underground, a job he did for five years before he got a call out of the blue from a headhunter inviting him to Sydney.
With their son just off to university and her brother in Adelaide, Collins’s wife of 33 years, Carolyn, jumped at the chance. Collins hadn’t thought about leaving though. “It was quite hard leaving an organisation where everyone knows you and you know everyone. People used to stop me in the street and say ‘you’re that guy from the Tube’.”
Tired Sydney commuters waiting for yet another delayed train home might not always appreciate it but there have been huge changes already under Collins’s watch.
Forty-five per cent of the senior management is new following the break-up of RailCorp into Sydney Trains and NSW TrainLink, the timetable is new, the long-awaited multi-transport Opal Card is finally in use. After years of delays and cost overruns, all 78 trains in the built-to-order Waratah fleet are running smoothly, though Collins is not a total fan.
The next tranche of trains, the intercity fleet, will be bought off the shelf, much to the alarm of Australian engineers worried about safety, he says. But the trouble with locally designed trains is they’re “like Australian animals. They’ve evolved over many years isolated from the rest of the world, specified by engineers who insisted they have some unique features which don’t exist in any other trains. Some of them are really great safety features, but that’s why the trains weigh 450 tonnes and cost the most ever to build. It’s like us all driving around in German tanks because it’s safer.”
But in fact it’s not safer, because the Waratahs are so solid it’s difficult to get people out in an emergency.The Europeans, by comparison, understand that while safety is paramount, you’ve got to design something that is efficient, energy efficient, easy to evacuate.
One burdensome legacy Collins is pleased to have helped shake off is NSW railway’s jobs-for-life culture. After hundreds of briefings with staff, he was delighted last month when 63 per cent of employees who voted were in favour of a new enterprise agreement that dispensed with the previously inviolable “no forced redundancies” clause. For the past few years, more than 400 employees who lost their jobs in the break-up of RailCorp have spent eight months on average idling in a unit managed by an employment consultancy at a cost of $28 million last year. “People were sitting there . . . doing nothing . . . and I just think that’s wrong,” says Collins.
I’m halfway through a second mini croissant and I order a second coffee but Collins declines, thank you. There’s too much to talk about, and not even the rising hubbub around us can put him off his stride.
Take what he’s done with the railways maintenance sites: there used to be 127 (“I call them the Bunnings sheds”); now there are 12. “The maintenance guys all had their fiefdoms with a TV and dartboard. And they sat there and then the shout went out and they went out and did the work. Now they’re in 12 posh demountables, under these 12 really good leaders, and they stand up almost Japanese style every morning looking at these boards that tell them how they’re doing and what happened yesterday.”
The good thing about Australians, Collins says, is “they’re adaptable, even in the railways”. Still there’s a long journey ahead.
Rather than run 20 trains an hour on its lines, Sydney Trains should run 30 to 35, but it doesn’t have the capacity because the signalling system is so outdated. “If you go to Lithgow or Mount Victoria, there are guys pulling the same levers people were pulling in 1880.” Collins shakes his head. “Go there. It’s a time warp.”
A $100 million-plus operations centre will be finished in the next three or four years, he says, and as soon as the tunnel boring machines are finished with the long-anticipated rapid transit North West Rail Link, due to open in 2019, they’ve got to get under the harbour to dig a second crossing. “We have got to do a good job of persuading the great and the good to keep spending the money.”
The thing is, Collins is not intimidated by the task because he’s seen it done before. In 1987, when a fire started by a lighted match falling under a wooden escalator killed 31 people at London’s King’s Cross station, the world’s oldest underground network was antiquated, inefficient and bogged down by acrimonious industrial relations. By the time Collins handed in his resignation last year – much to the surprise of his boss, “who nearly fell off his seat” – it was a modern, efficient service with updated trains, handling 4.2 million customer journeys a day.
The King’s Cross fire galvanised the authorities, says Collins. Two other experiences stand out for him: the 2005 public transport bombings and the 2012 Olympics, for which he was awarded an OBE.
“We learnt everything from the Aussies, I’d say that. The Sydney Olympics were the best up to that time and I think we were on a par. We had a fantastic Olympics. And it was a public transport Olympics.”
From the 2005 bombings, the worst attack on London since World War II, Collins says he learnt an important lesson in leadership: “I learnt – and this is one of my passions – if you give people support, treat them as individuals, they will come with you anywhere, under any circumstances.”
As recovery director, he was responsible for getting the trains running after the series of suicide bombs killed 52 civilians and injured 700 more. “The police chief was telling everyone to go home and stay indoors, and the Prime Minister was saying we’ve got to get the Tube running again, and that, for me, was very important. So my first job was to convince staff to come in,” says Collins. By the next day, 80 per cent of the system was running; within four weeks it was 100 per cent restored. “People came in and were proud to wear their uniforms. It really brought us together as an organisation.”
What’s stifled Sydney in the past he says, is a lot of “planning and not a lot of doing”: $500 million on a metro cancelled at the last moment, hundreds of metres of half-built tunnels; two sets of platforms at Central, 26 and 27, abandoned in the 1970s.
“I’m a very simple person,” he says. “I like to get thing done. They call my office the Ministry of Doing, because we’re going to do things as opposed to planning things.”
Sometimes he gets frustrated at the slow pace of change but “I’ve been a bureaucrat for many years. I’ve certainly learnt how to work through that. You can get stuck in 300-page business cases but it’s about influencing people and decisions. And that’s really what I’ve learnt: if you present a good case, then people will believe you and you can get a lot of good things done.”
He looks at his watch. He “could talk till lunchtime” but he’s got a train to catch. “Delighted to talk to you. Great fun,” he says, and he’s off – his coffee still only half drunk, the pastries entirely forgotten.