How does Tim O'Toole plan to upgrade the world's biggest underground system, using the most complex contracts in history, when he can't seem to keep its trains on the track?
It was said that only three men in Europe had ever understood the Schleswig-Holstein question. One was dead, the second was insane and the third had forgotten the answer. The question that Tim O'Toole has to answer is whether there are three sane people now alive who remember how London Underground is supposed to operate.

O'Toole is LU's new managing director. He has the job of operating the biggest urban mass transit system in the world by means of the most complicated contract system in the history of Western civilisation (in fellow American Bob Kiley's memorable phrase). Nobody has tried to do something like this before; nobody knows whether it can work; and after the two Tube derailments last weekend at Hammersmith and Camden Town, he has to do it at the centre of a huge crowd of critical journalists and fed-up commuters. Oh, and London mayor Ken Livingstone has had to go to the Treasury to ask for £1.5bn of extra money after taking a proper look at the Underground's budget and its pension scheme, which requires a £60m top-up.

It was a different picture when O'Toole took up his post in July; then, the job was beginning to look almost feasible. At least the relationship between the main players had been sorted out. Ownership of the system had formally passed from the government to Kiley's Transport for London, and the PPP deals with the Metronet and Tube Lines consortiums were closed.

And he did what he could to prepare himself for the job. O'Toole spent the early part of the year riding the system to get a passenger's viewpoint on how it worked – particularly important for a man whose prior experience in transport was running Conrail, one of the largest networks in the USA.

There’s a danger that we are so frantic that we decide to sit down and work out different arrangements

All of which poses the question: how is he going to go about making the system work?

Sensibly, he is beginning by downsizing expectations. He stresses that it is not LU's job to control the PPP consortiums. "The PPP is too massive. We are trying to highlight and isolate problems … Bob has been trying to put in a contract assurance process so that we can judge how they are performing," he says, referring to Bob Janowski, his chief operating officer and former Parsons Brinckerhoff man.

Janowski says that the first data from the live Tube Lines projects ran through his programme management system last week, and material from Metronet should be passing through the system next week. "It allows us to take comfort in the fact that we have a way of judging where all the pieces of work are, and whether the work is going to be delivered to schedule and cost," he says.