UNDERGROUND MAN Can the former CIA agent who saved New York's subway get the Tube back on track?
February 9th 2004
By William Finnegan
Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark
A couple of years ago, not long after moving from New York to London, Robert Kiley found himself being toasted by a British diplomat, who said, "You are the most important American to come to Britain since Dwight Eisenhower." This salut may have been excessive: Kiley was London's new transport commissioner; he was not preparing to win a war. Still, great things were expected of him. Londoners were alarmed and depressed by the state of the Underground, their city's subway
system, which, after more than fifty years of underinvestment, had fallen into severe decline. The Tube had become crowded, dirty, dangerous, unreliable ‑ while remaining, perhaps even more than New York's subway, crucial to the life of the city. Kiley, as it happened, was the chairman of New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority from 1983 to 1990 ‑ the turnaround years for the subway. Before that, he ran, and dramatically improved, Boston's venerable mass‑transit system. And so he had been hired to save the Tube.
Kiley, who is sixty-eight, does have a quietly commanding presence, but, in his dark suits and tortoiseshell glasses, he blends easily into the rows of executives bent over their briefing papers on the Heathrow‑Kennedy shuttle. At first, he was even able to ride the Tube without being recognized. There he was struck by the stoicism of his fellow‑passengers, who silently endured long delays in airless cars. At Victoria Station, which is forced to close at rush hour nearly every day because of overcrowding, Kiley once found himself caught in a frightening crush. He saw Underground workers form a human chain to hold back a tide of commuters trying to reach the platform. "I'd never seen anything like that anywhere," he told a reporter later. Kiley escaped into a control booth, where the dispatchers worked in full view of the public, and where he thought, We'd be dead by now if we were in Times Square. Here, he said, "there was no complaining. Other than the shuffling of feet, there wasn't much noise."
Simon Jenkins, a former editor of the Times of London, and an influential columnist, is not above complaining. "For millions of working Londoners, the Tube is their only experience of Third World squalor," he has written. "They may not visit London's prisons, mental hospitals, or sweatshops. They may not frequent the ghettos of Hoxton or the tenements of Walworth. They live in tidy homes, work in neat offices, and eat in clean restaurants. But they use the Tube. It is the nastiest thing they do."
Londoners have told me that, if an appointment is important, one must allow forty-five minutes more than a trip should take. Mechanical breakdowns are chronic, and not only on trains. The Tube runs much deeper than the New York subway, and passengers routinely find long lists of stations to avoid because of "escalator problems." One Saturday last year, I found myself carrying a stroller and baby up what felt like a thousand steps. In truth, though, trains and stations are not, as a rule, squalid; some stations are, in fact, splendid. There is graffiti, but it's not oppressive. Kiley has often said that the London Underground is in much better shape than the New York subway was when he took it over.
But London's system is much older than New York's ‑ it opened in 1863, the world's first urban underground train and it has both its great age and its basic structures to overcome. The deepest lines are fearsomely narrow, with clearances as small as six inches, which precludes air-conditioning in the trains ‑ there would be nowhere for the heat produced by air-conditioners to escape. Its predominantly single-track construction means that lines must be closed for routine maintenance, which is why the Tube does not run past 1 A.M. (New York's twenty‑four‑hour service relies on extensive double‑tracking.) The Tube needs new lines and, more immediately, it needs to run more trains on the lines it has. Deferred maintenance has led to a plague of broken signals, and aging tracks and trains. Derailments are frequent. The last major disaster on the Underground, a fire that started beneath an escalator at King's Cross, killing thirty-one people, was in 1987. But the system is now extremely vulnerable, and everyone knows it.
Kiley's first challenge was not the Tube's dilapidation. It was, rather, political, for a strange and bitter feud had developed around the Underground ‑ a governmental gridlock that threatened Kiley's control of the system he had been hired to fix. Back in 1997, when Tony Blair's Labour Government came to power, it promised to improve the Underground with a "new public‑private partnership," or PER Following a New Labour belief (shared with the Conservatives) that the private sector can build and run almost anything more efficiently than the public sector can, the Blair Government had sharply expanded a Tory program under which contracts to build and maintain schools, hospitals, and prisons were awarded to private companies. These projects had the great short-term political advantage of not showing up in the Treasury's books as public spending. Although Blair had campaigned against a Tory proposal to fully privatize the Tube, he wanted to get as much of the Underground's enormous expense as he possibly could off the government's books.
At the same time, the Blair Government had overseen, as part of its historic commitment to "devolution," the resurrection of independent municipal government in London. The city had not been allowed to govern itself since 1986, when Margaret Thatcher, in an astonishing fit of pique, abolished the Greater London Council. The G.L.C. was at that time led by Ken Livingstone, a flamboyant apostle of working-class leftism known as Red Ken, who used the council to bait Thatcher mercilessly ‑ hanging a huge banner on his headquarters, across from Westminster, advertising the number of jobless Londoners; inviting Sinn Féin to his office in the midst of an I.R.A. bombing campaign. Livingstone was the primary reason that Thatcher got rid of the city's government.
The new London government's most striking feature was that, for the first time in the city's two‑thousand‑year history, a mayor would be directly elected. Livingstone, who had spent the previous decade and a half in the wilderness as a Labour backbencher, announced that he would run. But Blair and his New Labour allies detested Livingstone, who represented everything they were trying to distance the Party from. They ran a nondescript candidate instead. Livingstone ended up campaigning as an independent - a rare maneuver in Britain's party‑dominated politics ‑ and was expelled from the Labour Party. When the election was held, in May of 2000, Livingstone thrashed the Labour candidate into third place, behind even his Conservative rival.
One of the main responsibilities to be transferred to the new city government was local transportation, including the Tube. But, with Livingstone as mayor, the Blair Government refused to hand over the Underground. The reason given was that the final terms of the P.P.P. had not been settled. In fact, the draft contracts had transmogrified into a half‑built embarrassment. More than six hundred million dollars of public money had been spent solely on consultants and drawing up the contracts, which already ran to nearly three thousand pages. Livingstone, who had no legal authority to compel the handover of the Underground, sought to break the deadlock by making what even his deputy mayor, a Labourite, called "a brilliant decision." He hired Bob Kiley.
Livingstone presented the hiring as a simple matter. To find a transport commissioner, he had "carried out a search for the best in the world." But Kiley was not, at least on paper, really Livingstone's type. His work in mass transit in New York and Boston had brought him into frequent conflict with labor unions. The Daily Telegraph played up this irony with the headline "RED KEN HIRES UNION BASHER TO RUN TUBE." What was more, Kiley's résumé included nearly a decade of service in the Central Intelligence Agency. In "Down the Tube: The Battle for London's Underground," by Christian Wolmar, Kiley recalled his job interview: "Ken started by saying he never thought he would be trying to recruit someone who worked for the C.I.A., and l said l never thought I would be talking to an unreconstructed Trotskyite."
I asked Kiley if he minded becoming a target in a British political free-for-all. He said that he didn't. "It's not as if I have this pristine view of myself. If I get caught in the crosshairs, maybe that's not a bad thing. This should be a big issue." Of course, Kiley was more than just a bystander in this struggle. To save the Tube, he would somehow have to get it away from the Blair Government. And he would need to do so quickly, before the contracts turning most of the system over to private companies could be signed.
When Kiley first took the job, in January of 2001, he told me, he received some advice from Ken Livingstone. "He said, 'The best way to think about Britain is to think East Germany at the height of the Cold War, with a required election every four or five years that is more or less democratic.' I kind of laughed." But, after a year of bureaucratic battles, he said to Livingstone, as they came out of a meeting with representatives of the Treasury, "You were wrong about this East German model. North Korea is a better example."
Kiley's office, on a top floor of Windsor House, on Victoria Street, in S.W.1, is vast and commands a view of Westminster, Big Ben, and the London Eye. Kiley, as transport commissioner, is head of a new body, called Transport for London; besides the Tube, it has responsibility for the city's buses, ferries, light-rail system, and much of its road network. He is well paid ‑ his salary, before performance bonuses, is a quarter of a million pounds a year, and his town house, in a city where housing is expensive, comes free. (Livingstone justified this outlay by arguing that if Kiley "turns round London's transport... it will be remarkably cheap at the price.") From his office, Kiley can see London laid out before him. It is not an orderly city, geographically speaking. It does not have a grid, like Manhattan, or hubs and spokes, like Paris and Washington, or a defining lakefront, like Chicago. It sprawls. The critic Jonathan Meades calls it "a horse-drawn Los Angeles." But, seen from high above, London resolves itself into a certain recognizable shape. It comes, that is, about as close as it can to resembling Harry Beck's famous 1933 map of the Underground, which is still in use. That map is, of course, an abstraction, a pleasingly simple rearrangement of reality ‑ of what is actually an ancient system of spectacularly gnarled and irregular tunnels and stations piercing the earth beneath the city at haphazard angles for a million different, largely forgotten reasons. Kiley sees all that, but I found, as we talked in his office, that he also sees something more: the system as a physical, technical, financial whole. And he was feeling angry, and profoundly responsible for it all.
Kiley grew up in Minneapolis, where his father was an executive with F.W. Woolworth, and he has been engaged in some form of political combat more or less continually since his undergraduate days, at Notre Dame, in the late fifties. It was in 1959, when he was president of the National Student Association, that he was first approached by the C.I.A. The N.S.A.
was then the largest college‑student group in the country: it had big, passionate annual congresses, left‑liberal politics ‑ and covert financial backing from the C.I.A. Only some N.S.A. officers were, as the saying went, “made witting" about its relationship with the agency, and only after they had signed a confidentiality oath that stipulated severe legal penalties if they divulged any information about the agency or its relationships. "If you tell anyone, you are dead meat" was Kiley's summary of the message he got.
Kiley always felt ‑ and still feels - that he was on the right side, trying to do something worthwhile. "Bob and the others believed that the C.I.A. was a noble enterprise," Robert Walters, whom Kiley recruited into the N.S.A., and who later helped found Students for a Democratic Society, said. "That was not some excuse. There was an archenemy who wanted to conquer us." Walters still remembers a phrase that Kiley used "beyond ideology" ‑ to extol the importance of making anti‑totalitarian alliances across the political spectrum. Kiley's politics were "Kennedy liberal, not wild and crazy but left of center," Walters recalled. "He was as skilled, bright, talented, and personable as anybody I've ever met."
Kiley went to graduate school at Harvard, studying international relations, but then dropped out to join the agency full time. He specialized in the covert funding of foreign youth and student groups, and he rose quickly through the ranks. By the time he was thirty, he had visited eighty-seven countries, often masquerading as an official of the United States Agency for International Development. His cover was blown, however, in 1967, after an article in Ramparts exposed the C.I.A.'s connection to the N.S.A. He was given a job in Langley as executive assistant to Richard Helms, the agency's director. After two years in that post, although he could hardly have been on a faster career track, Kiley left the C.I.A. He is legally proscribed from saying much about his time at the agency. But he has said that the war in Vietnam had some bearing on his decision to leave, along with an abiding discomfort with the culture of secrecy. To me, he also emphasized that he was newly married, with one baby and another on the way.
Kiley took a job at a new private organization, the Police Foundation, in Washington, D.C., and began working on police reform in cities around the country. His work caught the eye of Kevin White, Boston's mayor, who in 1972 made Kiley a deputy mayor. When Michael Dukakis was elected governor of Massachusetts, he asked Kiley to help him fill several positions, including that of Boston transit chief. Kiley's choices all fell through, and Dukakis finally ordered Kiley to take the post himself. It was an unusual, high‑profile line of work for an ex‑C.I.A. officer, but Kiley turned out to have a gift for it. The dilapidated "T" was transformed under his leadership.
Kiley's personal life, however, had taken a nearly annihilating turn. In 1974, his wife, Patricia, and their two young children were all killed in a car accident. Kiley still remembers each word of the phone call that brought him the news. The personable, serious, decisive young man with the brilliant career took some time off from work, and then came back ‑ more serious, more decisive, and more thoughtful than ever.
In 1983, when the M.T.A.'s top job became vacant, Governor Mario Cuomo called Kiley. New York City's subway system was in chaos, rife with crime, derailments, delays, broken doors, track fires, and graffiti. Police officers protecting Kiley's predecessor, Richard Ravitch, had twice been attacked by armed men. Ridership had declined to less than a billion in 1982 ‑ the lowest number since 1917. Kiley fired the small army of consultants that had attached itself to the agency, reorganized the supervisory ranks ‑ making a large number of enemies ‑ and announced a zero‑tolerance policy toward fare beaters and graffiti. At the time, Kiley has said, "the system was completely covered with graffiti ‑ six thousand two hundred cars, four hundred and eighty stations, the depots, the shops. It was a kind of leprosy." To widespread surprise, Kiley and his subway chief, David Gunn, who had been with him in Boston, wiped out the graffiti within four years. Along the way, Kiley got into public fights with, among others, Senator Alfonse D'Amato, Governor Cuomo, and most of the forty‑plus labor unions representing workers at the M.T.A. Still, on the subway, train and track and signal maintenance improved; cars and stations were notably cleaner; crime and derailments and track fires decreased dramatically; and ridership increased, as New York's middle class slowly returned to the trains.
After seven years, Kiley left the M.T.A. He spent the nineties working first as a private businessman and then as the president of the New York City Partnership, a nonprofit business association. Although Kiley was named by Presi4ent Clinton to the Amtrak board of directors in 1993, his career in public transportation seemed to be largely over. He was happily settled in New York with his second wife, Rona, and their two sons. Then came the call from London. And the challenge, Kiley later said, was irresistible: Boston, New York, and London had three of the oldest subway systems in the world. "This would be a three‑fer."
When he arrived in London, Kiley told me, he was "a little agnostic" about the proposals for the Tube put forth by Blair and his colleagues. He read the contracts and talked with their main architects. No one was surprised, however, when Kiley, a few months later, announced that he found the plan "fundamentally and fatally flawed."
The basic mistake, in Kiley's view, was that the Government had decided to divide the Underground into four parts: three batches of Tube lines, each to be leased for thirty years to a private infrastructure company, or "infraco," and a much reduced public entity that would continue to operate the trains. The infracos would maintain and upgrade the stations, tracks, signals, and rolling stock. Kiley argued that this "Balkanization" of the Underground would be both inefficient and unsafe. Susan Kramer, a former corporate banker who is on the board of Transport for London, called it "tearing up a railroad to fit a financial scheme."
As for the contracts themselves, Kiley gently described them as "systems analysis run amok." They were, in the jargon of consultancy, "output‑driven" or "performance‑based," which meant that, in order to determine payments to the infracos, the contracts had to anticipate an almost infinite number of possible "outcomes," as well as devise formulas to measure everything from "station ambience" to "lost customer hours." But the task of turning this theory into actual contracts had proved Sisyphean, producing "by far the most complex contractual arrangements ever attempted to be applied to an urban mass‑transport system," Kiley said. A train ticket thrown on a car floor, for instance, would be treated as litter, and would be charged against the books of the company maintaining that line as an ambience infraction. But the same ticket, tom in half, would be treated under a different formula. It would, Kiley said, be "a lawyer's field day."
He also found that in the writing and rewriting of the contracts many of the Government's original objectives had been lost, including any significant transfer of financial risk for cost overruns to the private sector, and any hope of running the Tube without state subsidies. The official estimate of those subsidies had risen, since 1998, from zero to more than a billion dollars a year, and was likely to keep rising. "No real asset analysis was done before they started down this road," Kiley said. "My dilemma, from the beginning, was having gotten here after this process was almost two years along."
Kiley proposed an alternative. The Underground would remain intact, and under public management. The billions of dollars needed for new investment would be raised by public bonds. Since the state could borrow at significantly lower interest rates than the private sector could, in the long run this would be a far cheaper, less risky way to finance Tube improvements. Private firms would be invited to bid on construction and maintenance jobs (this is a common practice on every transit system, including New York's), and many of the same firms vying for the immense infraco contracts would very likely end up doing the work ‑ but on shorter, more conventional contracts that would be enforceable. The difficulty, Kiley argued, was not with the concept of public‑private partnerships. "The problem is with this P.P.P. in this Underground system as reflected in these" as yet unsigned contracts.
Kiley took his case to the public, to Parliament, and to the Blair Government. The British press, in an uncharacteristic display of unanimity, cheered him on. Kiley quickly ascended to the most coveted seat in London politics, the one next to Sir David Frost on "Breakfast with Frost," a must‑watch TV show for the chattering classes. His manner was, for an English audience, an appealing combination ‑ easy, forceful, immensely knowledgeable, and yet self-deprecating. The British tabloids started referring to him as a "can‑do Yank." News crews camped out in front of the town house in Belgravia where he and Rona, an executive for a nonprofit organization, were living. One morning, Kiley told me, he caught a reporter creeping along the front hall inside the house.
John Prescott, Blair's deputy prime minister, who was in charge of the Government's contract negotiations, made it known that he wasn't going to be pushed around by "that guy from America." But London's Labour M.P.s were in a delicate position; their constituents, the Tube's actual users, were firmly opposed to any privatization of the Tube. And when Kiley met with the M.P.s "he was a wow," one of them told Christian Wolmar. "He just said, 'I have no political axe to grind, but here's my record, and I can give you private‑sector procurement, delivery, the money, and so on,' and the meeting just roared with approval. We came out thinking, We have seen the future and it is called Bob Kiley."
With Kiley working Parliament and the high-end press, and Livingstone working the popular press, the Government's room for maneuver narrowed steadily. In February of 2001, Prescott announced that Kiley would "take the lead" in designing a new plan for the Tube which would achieve Kiley's goal: "unified management of the Underground." "KILEY VICTORY ON TUBE PLAN," the Evening Standard declared.
This pronouncement was premature. For one thing, despite the headlines, Kiley still didn't have control of the Tube ‑ Blair's central government did.
David Gunn was the first casualty on Kiley's team. Kiley had brought him to London to work on the Tube, and, as bad as the system's physical condition was, Gunn liked what he found when he talked to the Underground's operating employees. They were serious, capable railroad people, if grievously under-supported the kind of workers who, according to legend, if they needed to repair a valve that was no longer being made, might pillage a museum's display of antique equipment for the part they needed. Gunn was less impressed by the senior bureaucrats with whom he and Kiley were negotiating over the contracts. “They were pretty condescending," he said. "And some were real arrogant." One day, Gunn blew up. "I was straight off an overnight plane, unshaved, still in jeans, and this young woman from the Treasury starts lecturing me about how you buy subway cars. I said, 'Who the hell are you to tell me? Have you ever bought a subway car?'" Another representative from the Government side ‑ "a lord, or whatever," Gunn recalled ‑ tried to make peace, saying, "You New Yorkers are certainly outspoken." Gunn said, "I'm from Canada, and I didn't come over here to be lectured." Within a month, Gunn had left for Nova Scotia. (Today, runs Amtrak.)
The young woman from the Treasury was Shriti Vadera, a former merchant banker whose expertise was in Third World debt. Kiley, too, found her frustrating. In their meetings, he would present his critiques of the contracts only to have Vadera pronounce, "I'm very sorry, but that is not the Treasury's view." Kiley did not blow up, but he started saying things like "How can I engage with the Treasury? You haven't addressed any of my points." And, eventually, to Vadera, "Who's your boss?"
Her boss was ‑ and is ‑ Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who is widely seen as the No. 2 in British government. The Chancellor's official residence is at 11 Downing Street. He collects ninety-six per cent of all British taxes, and he very largely decides how public money is spent. Simon Jenkins says of the Chancellor, "He's the only person who can challenge the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister can't move him. And Gordon Brown? Absolutely immovable." Ken Livingstone, marveling at the power of the Treasury to block initiatives, told me, "When Churchill became Prime Minister during the war, his first decision was to exclude the Chancellor of the Exchequer from the War Cabinet." He did this, according to Livingstone, "on the ground that, if he didn't, Hitler would win."
Brown, who is the son of a minister, was the wunderkind of Scottish Labour politics in the nineteen‑seventies. At age thirty-two, he was elected to Parliament, where he shared an office with another young corner, Tony Blair. Brown is, by all accounts, the more brilliant of the two, and it was a surprise to many people that Blair landed at the top of the ticket in the elections that brought Labour to power. (It is widely assumed that the two men have an agreement that, at some point, Brown will become Prime Minister.) In personal style and public manner, they could scarcely be more different. Where Blair is glib, confiding, and eager, Brown is dour, bearish, and prone to scowl. Socially, as a recent book on Labour politicians puts it, "Brown has consistently entertained the party faithful and trade unionists at No.11, in contrast to the pop stars and millionaires invited to No. 10."
Politically, however, Brown and Blair are on the same side: New Labour. When Brown, who has a doctorate in history, took over the Treasury, in 1997, he brought with him an obsession with getting expenses off his books. In many areas, Brown's fiscal rectitude has paid off Britain more or less dodged the recession that hit the United States and much of the world economy starting in 2000. But Brown's prudence has also made him reluctant to relinquish control of any aspect of public capital spending. Hence his refusal to allow the Tube to be handed over to the new London government before most of its costs could be transferred to the private sector. Never mind that, in Kiley's view, the contracts would end up costing the government far more than would aggressive, unified public management
Brown was clearly the man Kiley needed to talk to. Kiley knew that he could make his case, and he believed that Brown, who has often expressed admiration for American ingenuity ‑ he even spends his summer vacations on Cape Cod ‑ would get it. Kiley, who has a house on Martha's Vineyard, asked to see him. Brown did not reply. Kiley asked again. Brown did not reply. Kiley, exasperated, went public with his desire to speak to the Chancellor. Brown did not respond. Kiley, flabbergasted, began to ask, publicly, whether Brown even existed. He called him the Wizard of Oz on "Breakfast with Frost" No response from Brown.
There were various theories about Brown's refusal to see Kiley ‑ or even acknowledge him. Some people related it to Brown's widely credited hatred of Ken Livingstone. Others attributed it, at least in part, to a Scotsman's closet hostility toward London. Most people, however, seemed to see Brown's stubborn public silence in terms of the Treasury's great power and self-regard. The Chancellor of the Exchequer almost never meets with a local government functionary. When the Treasury sends someone to a meeting with another government department, it tends to send a representative of a lower rank than that of the person being met, simply to underline the Treasury's institutional superiority. An elite brain trust at Treasury made policy, and the department expected implementers like Kiley to carry that policy out, without discussion or complaint. In that sense, Brown's silence was a class thing ‑ as so many things in Britain are ‑ and not personal.
Kiley knew that Gordon Brown was an unusual politician ‑ one who, for instance, rarely spoke to the press. "He's a very scarce commodity," Kiley told me. "And it may be that he keeps a kind of value to his political coin that other politicians don't, because they wear out their welcome. Coming out when this new American know-it-all arrives on the scene and challenges him? It wasn't even a hard choice to make."
Not everyone in the Treasury remained so impervious. After the press learned of Shriti Vadera's role in the negotiations, the papers lit into her for blocking Kiley. As she left one meeting, Kiley recalled, a pack of reporters waiting outside hounded her so relentlessly that she retreated indoors. Kiley found her in tears.
In the spring of 2001, as a general election loomed in June, Tony Blair was aware that the squabble over the Tube was hurting his party, particularly in London. On Easter Monday, he invited Kiley to Chequers, the Prime Minister's country estate. In the study, they went over some of the contracts. Blair, a lawyer by training, could easily see how disadvantageous the contracts were to the government. He asked Kiley to negotiate for the central government with the consortia that had bid on the contracts, hammering out a version that Kiley could live with. In other words, he wanted Kiley to work for him.
Kiley told me that he felt obliged to try, if only because the Prime Minister had asked him to. And so, while remaining transport commissioner of London, he became chairman of London Regional Transport.
Blair's hiring of Kiley was a bombshell, and was widely seen as a direct rebuff to Gordon Brown. But the immediate effect of Blair's action was to remove the controversy from the news. Kiley disappeared into lengthy negotiating sessions. Labour's fear that Ken Livingstone, angry about the Tube, might campaign against its local candidates in London was allayed. Labour went on to win the June elections in a landslide.
Shortly after the election, Blair fired Kiley.
"Heroic cynicism," Tony Travers, a specialist in urban affairs at the London School of Economics, told me, not un-admiringly. "Breathtaking."
"Heartbreaking," Simon Jenkins said. "To invite him to Chequers. To appoint him to that job. To let yourself be photographed with him. To let it be known that you had faced down Gordon Brown and gone with Bob Kiley. And then to sack him straight after the election. I told Bob, “Anything you can do in American politics we can do worse."
Blair had not only fired Kiley; his Government had immediately obtained a gag order from the courts to prevent him from releasing two publicly financed consultants' reports on the safety implications and financial outlook of the P.P.P. contracts.
Kiley did not take the dismissal quietly. He was still London’s transport commissioner, and he and Livingstone filed a lawsuit to have the gag lifted. He went on television to accuse the Government of throwing a "smoke screen" around the contracts. Hundreds of supporters, some carrying signs reading "London Loves Kiley" turned up outside the Royal Courts of Justice in late July when the suit was heard. Kiley won permission to release the consultants' reports, and polls showed that he and Livingstone had the support of almost ninety per cent of London. They seemed to be running out of options, though.
The companies competing for the Tube contracts included some of Britain's most powerful corporations. Still, what Kiley and Livingstone were confronting was not, evidently, corporate self‑dealing or the influence of campaign contributors (Labour still gets much of its funding from unions) but far stronger forces: the institutional weight of the Treasury and New Labour's ideological infatuation with markets and big business. Simon Jenkins told me, "The script was that anybody in Kiley's position was incompetent. So when Bob came along ‑ the acceptable face of public Tube management, this charismatic leader who can actually do it – they were unable to see it. It didn't fit their model."
Meanwhile, it was becoming increasingly dear that the Treasury‑driven model of rail management had fundamental problems: Britain's once‑great national rail system was coming apart. British Rail, which the Tories had privatized in the mid‑nineties, had been broken up into more than a hundred separate pieces and sold off. Since then, dozens of different companies ‑ train operators, train owners, maintenance companies, rail‑freight firms, as well as a large, publicly traded corporation called Railtrack which owned all the infrastructure ‑ had worked together to turn Britain's rail system into perhaps the worst in Europe. There had been several major accidents, including one at Ladbroke Grove, in West London, in October of 1999, that killed thirty-one people; another, in October of 2000, near Hatfield, north of London, that killed four people; and a third, at Potters Bar, in Hertfordshire, in May of 2002, that killed seven and injured seventy. By any measure, the "safety culture," as it is called, of British Rail, which was among the world's strongest, had been destroyed.
Only two of Railtrack's fourteen board members at the time of the Hatfield crash had railroad experience. Gerald Corbett, the company's chief executive, was interviewed two days later on the BBC, and said, "The railway was ripped apart at privatization and the structure that was put in place was a structure designed, if we are honest, to maximize the proceeds to the Treasury" A month later, he was sacked and replaced by a man whose background was in the hotel industry. Railtrack's finances went into a death spiral. The Blair Government was finally forced to seize control of the company in late 2001. A quarter of a million shareholders were left holding the bag, their investments decimated. Then, in October of 2003, the Government abruptly terminated all of the rail system's major maintenance contracts. At least two of the recent fatal train wrecks have been attributed to faulty maintenance, and Whitehall has apparently concluded that the job is simply too important to leave to private contractors.
The failure of national rail privatization could hardly go unremarked by anyone debating the plan for the Tube. And yet the Blair Government denied that there was any lesson to be learned. The railways were a "full," or Tory, privatization; Blair's plan was a "third way" partnership. The term "privatization" does, it is true, cover a great number of arrangements. And the recent rise of the public‑private partnership (like privatization, an international trend) can clearly be attributed to the limits and disappointments common to wholesale privatizations. By not entirely abandoning ownership, the state may retain its role in safeguarding the public interest while reaping the benefits of competition. These benefits are largely erased, however, if the service being provided constitutes a natural monopoly ‑ water, electricity, the subway ‑ and particularly if contracts are allowed to run for decades. This was, of course, the plan for the Tube.
Still, the Government forged ahead. By late 2002, some of the first contracts were finally being signed. Two of the three batches of Tube lines (the Bakerloo, Central, Victoria, and Waterloo & City lines; and the District, Circle, Metropolitan, East London, and Hammersmith & City lines) were awarded to a consortium called Metronet. The third (the Jubilee, Northern, and Piccadilly lines) went to a consortium called Tube Lines, one of whose principals is the American multinational Bechtel. When I asked Kiley about Bechtel, a bête noire of privatization opponents, he surprised me. "They're a solid company," he said. "They're a tough group. They're not going to be pushed around. But they're very professional. I've worked with Bechtel before. You worry about the companies that are a little less mature." Kiley, in fact, had grave doubts about several of the other companies involved, including one that was in deep financial trouble and two that had been implicated in fatal crashes on the national rail system.
"They'll destroy the Underground," David Gunn said flatly. "Just like they destroyed British Rail, which was a great organization. They contracted everything out, lost the basic human capital that you need to run these organizations. They didn't even have an engineering department left. That's how you get a Hatfield."
I went to hear Livingstone and Kiley speak at a meeting of the London Assembly, part of the city's new government, in its gleaming headquarters, on the south bank of the Thames. The two men make an odd, and oddly formidable, political couple. Livingstone is the cheeky brawler, a popular hero, a Londoner to his fingertips, always ready with a quote-worthy quip ‑ he called the civil servants who were negotiating the P.P.P. "ghastly dullards" ‑ while Kiley is the cool American, intent on his job, unfazed by the spotlight, the consummate grownup.
The two men shared the podium for much of the meeting, while a couple of dozen assembly members peppered them with questions. The Mayor has a large, round head, a nasal voice, and a more or less perpetual half smile that serves to temper his sarcasm. Looking business like in a dark suit, striped shirt, and gold necktie, he sparred amiably with the other politicians, landing jabs that drew laughs from the gallery. (After Kiley left, he said, "I noticed Bob slipping out the other door so that he would not have to confront the people out front protesting the pretty crap wages that bus drivers are still being paid.")
Kiley played the straight man. In a gray shirt and a gray tie, he answered questions about the transportation budget, reeling off numbers without notes, his manner serious but relaxed. The sense of public showmanship and one-upmanship that pervaded Livingstone's exchanges with the assembly was absent with Kiley. This was a manager, not a politician, except that he stood with Livingstone, and by doing so visibly strengthened the Mayor's position.
Livingstone and Kiley have become good friends. "The chemistry works," Kiley said simply. "Which is nice. You know, the Government's always accusing Ken of being duplicitous, but I find him eminently trustworthy and reliable. When he makes a commitment, he sticks with it."
Kiley has a distinctly different social profile from Livingstone's. Tony Travers, of the L.S.E., told me that Kiley and his wife "have fit into London society in the most extraordinary way," adding, "No establishment party could be perfect without them. Bob is clearly more than a transport operator. He has views on cities. He is a foreigner. He is not judged as a Brit would be." Rona Kiley helped found a program, Teach First, modeled on Teach for America, that recruits new graduates from top British universities to teach for two years in inner-city secondary schools. Teach First has been a roaring success; it has even gained the blessing of Tony Blair. Bob Kiley says that Rona's relations with Whitehall are much better than his, and it's true. She is also well connected in the upper reaches of the London business establishment. "I think the world of Ken Livingstone, but a lot of the people I know here hate him," Rona told me. "I can't see why."
Many people think that Kiley had no idea what he was getting into when he took this job. He was hired by a mayor who, although he had been directly elected, had almost no power to raise revenue. Kiley did, however, understand the traditional centralism of British government. He can talk eloquently about what he calls "the necessary democratic tension" between London and Westminster ‑ the historically uneasy relationship between the capital city and the national government. Still, one has to wonder when he realized how weak Ken Livingstone's position really is. Livingstone himself likes to feign denial. "I'm in a uniquely good position," he told me, "because I spent fourteen years as a backbench member of Parliament, which is such a low form of life that even the limited powers of the mayor's office seem like positively halcyon days." But he added, "When I met the mayor of Moscow and he was recounting his range of tax powers and his ability to initiate things, I described the situation in London and he said, 'Well, that's worse than under Stalin.' He was quite shocked."
Livingstone and Kiley scored one major victory, despite the odds, in 2003. London's road traffic is nightmarish, inching along in a semi-permanent gridlock through much of the week, particularly in the city center, where streets originally built just wide enough for two carts to pass offer no chance of new lanes being added. Livingstone wanted to require vehicles operating in Central London to pay a fee. London isn't entered, like Manhattan, by bridges or tunnels, so the mechanics of the scheme were unwieldy ‑ cameras mounted at key intersections would film license plates, and computers would send bills to car owners who hadn't paid their fee (by phone, on the Internet, or at designated shops of gas stations). Fines for nonpayment would escalate rapidly.
Every conceivable objection was raised. Those who lived on the edges of the congestion zone, as it was called, would be paying constantly. The working class couldn't afford it. (The working class takes the Tube, Livingstone retorted, or the bus. He himself has never had a driver's license, and refuses an official car and driver; he takes the Tube to work.) Children would be unable to get to school, because their parents would be unable to afford the school run into the zone. The computers would fine the wrong people. An epidemic of license-plate stealing was inevitable. One Tory politician predicted civil disobedience.
In February, as the clamor peaked, the congestion charge was introduced. Kiley and his staff worked through the night to solve problems as they appeared. On the whole, things went remarkably smoothly. Traffic improved immediately. By late 2003, Livingstone was talking about doubling the size of the congestion zone.
In January of last year, a crowded Tube train crashed between St. Paul's and Chancery Lane. Three cars derailed, and thirty-two people were injured. The train bounced off the tunnel walls, tearing off doors and shattering windows. Eight hundred passengers had to clamber through broken glass, twisted metal, and thick smoke. The streets around Chancery Lane filled with soot‑faced people in shock, vomiting in the gutters. I happened to be in the neighborhood when the crash occurred. The public anger was palpable, and it grew in the days that followed, when the Central Line, which carries half a million passengers a day, was closed indefinitely, and some of the story behind the crash emerged. It seemed that the train's driver had reported hearing strange noises, and a safety inspector had boarded the train, but got off six stops before the derailment. The Central Line was under "shadow running" a program to prepare for the transfer of maintenance from London Underground to the infracos ‑ and the train drivers' union claimed that its workers were already under pressure not to take trains out of service. This was exactly the sort of arrangement that had caused Ken Livingstone to declare, "They will be arguing about the contracts as they haul the bodies out of the Underground."
I went to see Kiley a few days after the Chancery Lane accident. He was at home, recovering from bronchitis. We sat in his living room. He wore jeans and a sweatshirt and heavy brogues. He was hoarse but seemed vigorous. I noticed, on a bookshelf behind him, a biography of Disraeli (next to a four‑volume history of Boston). Despite his frustration with the British system of government, he talked about the awe he felt when he entered the House of Commons, to which he had often been summoned how its long, rich history of democratic debate seemed to suffuse the building it self: "You can be the most cynical person in the world, but you can't walk in there and not be affected," he said.
Kiley's popularity has ebbed from its dizzying, Ike‑like high-water mark. In some ways, though, it has also solidified. Susan Kramer, the former banker on the board of Transport for London, who was the Liberal Democrats' candidate for mayor in 2000, told me, "I think Bob's seen as incredibly pro‑London. He's not waiting for a title or for some future appointment." Steve Norris, who was the Tory candidate for mayor in 2000‑and will be again in 2004‑takes a less benign view of Kiley. "I sold my Kiley shares a long time ago," he told me. "He really was the sort of ultimate A‑list smash. But the problem is that he's been utterly, utterly useless." Norris has a freewheeling political style that allowed him to survive a scandal, several years back, in which he was alleged to have had five mistresses while married. But he has yet to gain much traction from his campaign promises to send Kiley back where he came from: Ken Livingstone remains an odds-on favorite for reelection.
With the Blair Government still dead set on the P.P.P., and only one major set of contracts still to be signed, some of Kiley and Livingstone's supporters were inclined to be apocalyptic. They talked about how Kiley and Livingstone would be handed a "poisoned chalice" if they accepted a partially privatized Tube. "The Treasury just got this massively wrong," Simon Jenkins had told me. "It was like mistaking summer for winter. It's the Treasury's version of the Dardanelles campaign ‑ a total fiasco, already costing untold millions of pounds and not even begun. It's probably the biggest central-government fiasco of modem times."
Kiley, in his living room, was more measured. "This is a multi-billion pound roll of the dice, the outcome of which won't be known for five to ten years," he said. "I've never been around a contract that doesn't change. Both parties realize there are reasons to change a contract - you just go ahead and do it."
Rona Kiley came to the door. There was a call from Bob's office; they said it was an emergency. He went out to take it. I looked around the room, which was not particularly large but was sunny, beautifully furnished, with a fireplace, and vases full of fresh lilies and orchids. The house was quiet ‑ the Kileys' sons were both back in the States. I was reminded of something I had heard from two different local transport historians. Bob Kiley, they said, bore an uncanny resemblance to Albert Stanley, later Lord Ashfield, who ran London's Underground system for most of the first half of the twentieth century ‑ the Golden Age of the Tube. One of the historians, Stephen Glaister, of Imperial College, got out pictures of the two men and held them side by side for me to examine. Actually, their resemblance was more than physical, for Lord Ashfield was an American, too. He had lived in Detroit, where he ran the street railways, and he had succeeded in integrating London's chaotic mass‑transit system, most of which was still in private hands, into a single, smoothly functioning public network
Kiley returned from his phone call. It seemed that a deal with the Government for the transfer of the Tube to Transport for London was imminent. This was not the first time a deal had seemed close to completion. But Kiley was clearly hopeful.
And finally, this past July, responsibility for the Underground was handed over to London. There was very little fanfare. Everyone, including the press and the public, seemed exhausted. Tony Blair was already occupied with trying to shore up his leadership in the face of national disillusionment over his handling of the Iraq war. A columnist at the Observer suggested that perhaps it was now time for Gordon Brown to unbend and meet Bob Kiley. There was no response from Brown.
Kiley went to work on fixing the Tube. "The chalice is definitely poisoned," he recently conceded. "The question is whether you can detoxify the contents." He meant a serious renegotiation of the P.P.P. contracts, which he sees as increasingly likely. The Treasury, having recognized the calamitous course it set the Tube on, has, he said, "backed away from the P.P.P. as if they'd never seen it before. It's 'P.P.P.? What's that? Is that like the Q.Q.Q.?'" Kiley laughed. Now the Treasury is even coming around to Kiley's idea of public-bond financing for improvements on the Tube. Last month, Ken Livingstone, cruising toward reelection in June, was abruptly readmitted to the Labour Party, with Tony Blair publicly admitting that he had been wrong about his old antagonist.
"I think we can come to a good ending," Kiley told me. "This is not over."