Five minutes after the red light of the night’s last train sinks into the inky dark of the tunnel, 60 men handicapped by a strange collection of objects begin a surreal race against time.

Journey to the end of the night
Journey to the end of the night

It is 12.30am on a wet, autumnal night in south London. Beneath the canopied entrance of an underground station, a group of men is beginning to collect, like runners before a long-distance race. In the glare of white strip lighting, their orange high-vis waistcoats and white hard hats glow against the dark night.

The runners know the last train of the day is due to leave the station in less than 15 minutes. As they wait, some of them puff determinedly on cigarettes. Others stand in groups chatting and joking. And all the while, the queue grows. By 12.50, there are 60 men waiting outside the station.

Meanwhile, 23 m below ground, protection master Paul Chatwin stands alone on the empty platform. He watches the red tail-lights of train disappear into the tunnel, then climbs gingerly down onto the railway tracks and places a small box, called a crid, onto the live rail. On the lid of the box are three lightbulbs. Two light up. Chatwin straightens. After five minutes, all three go out. He signals that the current has been switched off. This is what fires the starting pistol.

Above ground in the entrance hall, the competitors surge toward the station’s two passenger lifts. Some shuffle forward pushing wheelbarrows heaped with sand. Some balance sections of ventilation ductwork on their shoulders. Some trundle scaffold towers behind them loaded with cabling and electrical gear. Fifteen minutes after the first men have inserted themselves into the two lifts, the tail of the queue still jams the booking hall.

Down below, it is pandemonium. The hot, stale air is filled with dust and the screech of drills and grinders while a disembodied metallic voice intones over and over again: “The last train has left the northbound platform.” Scores of men cram into the station’s pedestrian tunnels. Scaffold towers are erected to support the men hanging signage, fitting cable trays and attaching the suspended ceiling grid. Working around these obstructions, other men install fire alarms and communications cabling … Welcome to another normal everyday night at the great Borough underground station refurb.

This 120-year-old station is the first to be upgraded by the Tube Lines consortium, which is made up of Amey, Bechtel and Jarvis. And there is a simple explanation for the surreal race we have just witnessed. Because the PPP deal is output-based, completion dates for each station’s modernisation have already been agreed. If Tube Lines fails to complete the work on time, the operator will be fined up to £200,000 for every four-week period the job overruns.

The hot, stale air is filled with dust and the screech of drills and grinders while a disembodied metallic voice intones over and over again: "The last train has left the northbound platform ..."

“We set ourselves a target completion date six months prior to the abatement date,” says Simon Addyman, the consortium’s project manager on the job. The Borough refurbishment started in September 2002 and is due to be completed next month. That might sound like a comfortable schedule, but the requirement to keep each station open during the work makes Tube Lines’ task vastly more difficult. It means that construction work can only be undertaken during the four-hour slot when the system is closed each night.

As a result, the pressure to complete the works is intense. “It is critical to get these first stations in on time and on budget,” says Addyman. “All work is now geared for handover.”

All of which means that the workers have to maintain a cracking pace. “There is no time for a meal break,” says Addyman. Some of the men will surface briefly for a cigarette break, but otherwise the pressure of the job keeps them busy for their entire shift.

And in case you were wondering, those strange burdens that the operatives bear are because London Underground regulations prohibit contractors storing tools and equipment underground; this means that each operative has to carry everything they will need for the night’s work.

Even without the time constraints, the work is challenging. Addyman looks at rewiring work being undertaken on a suspended ceiling. “Often we have no idea what the cables serve,” he says, looking at the mass of multicoloured spaghetti above him. The electrical work is made worse by the need to keep the existing system running until the new one has been installed, tested and approved. The approvals process has to be integrated into the programme. Addyman says it will be “a big relief” once the contractor can make a start on stripping out the old cables.

On the station’s platforms, other teams are hard at it installing a tactile strip along the platform edge for partially sighted passengers – a move to make the station compliant with the Disability Discrimination Act. To accommodate the resin tiles, a 300 mm groove is being cut into the northbound platform.

It has taken 60 people two years working five nights a week. And we're ahead of programme

Simon Addyman, Tube lines' project manager

Meanwhile, on the southbound platform, plasterer Jim Scales is hard at work plastering the platform tunnel walls. He was already familiar with the station; his firm, Scales Plastering, carried out work at Borough the last time it was refurbished, 17 years ago, and he has been working on the Underground ever since. The tunnels have now been re-waterproofed and Scales is covering the waterproofing in layers of special hard-wearing plaster. To plaster the tunnels’ curved walls, Scales has had to make up his own tools.

Scales’ experience of working on the Tube is invaluable. With so much work generated by the PPP, there is a growing demand for contractors to help out with the work. But, the severe restriction on working time means that firms without experience of working on similar contracts need to price and programme the works carefully. “If they’ve not worked down the Tube, when firms tender, they often underestimate just how short the working window actually is,” says Addyman.

He says the M&E contractors on this project are a case in point. “The electrical and mechanical contractors didn’t have a lot of Tube experience so their programme was shot.” He adds: “It was a lot of hard work to bring them back onto programme again.” Even so, the electricians will probably still be the last trade to finish.

Despite the limited time available to contractors to carry out the works, the refurbishment of Borough station is a 24-hour operation. “Sometimes we come across an issue we can’t get sorted, so have to get a design engineer to sort it the next day,” Addyman says. Daytime is also when the design and management team meet to discuss problems and finalise the details of the next night’s work. To ensure they are familiar with the works above and below ground, contract managers work for two weeks during the day and the following two weeks at night.

Before Tube Lines could start work on the station, its plans for its refurbishment had to be approved by London Underground and the local council (for the above-ground works). Approvals also need to be obtained by the contractor for their material selection and to obtain permission to transport each material in the station’s lift. “Everything down here is governed by standards,” says Addyman. “You can’t wipe your arse without filling in a form.”

At the end of the shift, the men must have completed their task or, if not, made the station safe for the public. “Everything must be working perfectly before we leave each night,” Addyman says. “Closing part of the network can cost more than £200,000, and closing a station for a day incurs a £50,000 penalty.” So, at the end of the shift, the race starts again, run by men carrying waste and unused materials.

The station’s refurbishment is nearing completion. “Getting to this stage has taken 60 people two years working five nights a week,” Addyman says. He is looking pleased with himself. “We’re ahead of programme, on budget and we will make delivery before the abatement date.” So, one station down – 96 to go.

A packed timetable: Tube Lines' refurbishment plans

  • Over the next seven and a half years, 97 stations out of the 100 that Tube Lines is responsible for on the Northern, Piccadilly and Jubilee lines will either be modernised or upgraded.

  • Tube Lines is working on 30 to 40 stations a year.

  • Tube Lines' contract is split into four seven-and-a-half-year periods (30 years in total) so that London Underground can review its priorities for the Tube.

  • Over the next seven and a half years, Tube Lines will invest £4.4bn in improvements and maintenance.

  • By the end of 2005, Tube Lines will have 90 stations under development.

  • The refurbishment of Borough station has taken almost 140,000 hours. Or, put another way, if one person working alone had tackled it, they would have spent their entire working life on this project.

  • More than 1000 litres of paint have been used so far.

  • More than 100 km of cable, enough to stretch the combined distance of both the Northern and Jubilee lines, have been used in the refurbishment.

  • 95,000 tiles were used to line the walls of the tunnels – enough to cover the floor of an Olympic-sized swimming pool