The chairman of Metronet has two-thirds of London’s dilapidated Underground resting on his shoulders. So why, then, is he so chirpy – and what’s with the texting? We met John Weight to find out.
John Weight has become a text addict. The chairman of Tube consortium Metronet gets them “here, at home and on holiday”, he says. “I have to remember when meeting people like you to leave it on my desk. The temptation to look at it is very high,” he adds, gazing longingly across his office.
Weight does not use the medium to arrange to meet his friends at Top Shop on Saturday afternoons, nor to learn of the latest goings-on in the Big Brother house. Rather, he gets a minute-by-minute commentary on the condition of the London Underground.
On top of the de-vowelled textules, Weight has a conference call at 8.10am every day with bosses from London Underground and fellow consortium Tube Lines to assess the state of the network. So a pretty hands-on job, then. But the boyish-faced, ruddy-cheeked Weight, 56, wears the intensity of running two-thirds of the capital’s creaking underground network as a badge of pride. “In some ways this is probably one of the most challenging jobs going around in this sort of business,” he beams.
The preternaturally upbeat Weight has achieved his present eminence after a 40-year rise through the ranks of the electricity industry. He left school in Gillingham, Kent, at the age of 16 in the mid 1960s with “a minimum number of A levels”, after which he joined electrical firm AEI as an apprentice technician. Nearly 30 years later, he was promoted to the board of south-eastern electricity group Seeboard, which was privatised in 1990. By 2000, he was chief executive. “I’ve been jolly lucky in my career,” he says. “I’ve enjoyed my work, the people I’ve worked for and the companies I’ve worked for.”
Weight sees obvious parallels between the privatised electricity sector and the Tube. During his time in the 1990s at Seeboard, he was even exposed to an early PFI deal – the one signed between London Underground and a consortium that included Seeboard, Balfour Beatty and ABB in 1997 to supply power to the network for 30 years. For Weight, the case for the move from public to private has unassailable logic because, he says, it provides an efficient service and investment regime for the underground. Putting aside the troubled gestation of the Tube PPPs, Weight stresses that the deal means that there is “no substitute to doing a good job”.
And although he stresses the unique nature of the Metronet entity – one customer, a 30-year deal, a wildly diverse workforce – he is quick to add that the economic essentials are the same as any other business. And if anyone complains about the profit his firm trousers, they must be misinformed about the facts of life in the real world. “The commerciality of the western world – that’s what makes the whole thing tick,” he says. “If we meet the conditions, the expectations and targets of the contracts, that will deliver profits for us and our shareholders. I am not hiding from that.”
If we meet the conditions and targets of the contract, that will deliver profits. I am not hiding from that
Weight is also not hiding from an open debate as to the logistics of carrying out the required work in the PPP, which includes a mix of maintenance, upgrading, signalling and station enhancements. Closing lines, or parts
of them, even for weeks or months, should be considered, he argues. Not for all the work, but certainly for chunks of it. “It’s going to be a mix and match. I think it depends where it is – whether or not there are sufficient alternative means of transport. If you take one example, the Central Line, for the middle part of it there are alternatives, whereas for the eastern part going to Epping, that’s maybe the only route in to London.”
Weight stresses that the decision over closures is for London Underground to make, but his firm sees the logic of this argument. “From our point of view we are an engineering company and it would make a much more productive schedule for us. In many ways I don’t want to depersonalise it, but it’s basically a logistical exercise.”
Despite his natural optimism, Weight says he is kept awake at night by “the condition of what we are taking on and concentrating on delivering our plans”. One thing he may be grateful for is that Metronet’s shareholders – Balfour Beatty, Atkins, Bombardier, Thames Water and EDF Energy – seem reasonably secure. Compare this with Tube Lines, where Jarvis’ difficulties have created a fog of uncertainty. Of course this is a man who understands the commercial facts of life, so he accepted that stakes may be sold – indeed, Keith Clarke, the chief executive of Atkins’ has raised the possibility that his firm could sell on its stake next May. Nonetheless, Weight expresses confidence in his position. “I sit here very secure and comfortable that we have very good shareholders. For companies such as Balfour and Atkins – notwithstanding what Keith said – this is a core part of their business activities. These are good businesses to be in bed with.”
How do you get to work? I live in London during the week so I ride my push bike to work every day. That's my only attempt at keeping fit. My main house is in West Sussex.
Do you get angry during work? Yes yes yes. I try to think rationally and positively and find the best way to make the thing go away. Or else I transfer the stress somewhere else.
How to you relax? I sail my own boat.