Several hundred of us said farewell to London Underground’s Chief Operating Officer Howard Collins on Thursday night at a private event at the London Transport Museum. Howard is leaving us this week to take up the post of Chief Executive Officer Sydney Trains.
Howard’s career spans some 36 years joining the then London Transport aged 18. He joined the Traffic Administration Training Scheme – one of the best schemes of its day - working on both the bus and rail side before becoming a Trainee Area Manager with spells on the District and Jubilee lines. He contributed considerably to the latter’s often painful extension to Canary Wharf and Stratford just in time for the opening of The Millennium Dome.
In the past couple of years as Chief Operating Officer he became famous for his appearances on “The Tube” – the documentary series which told the story of behind the scenes on the Underground – indeed his wife (pictured with him above) often said she saw him more on the television than at home. He was inevitably teased about this by his colleagues and every one of the (many) speeches on Thursday evening referred to his high profile media activity.
Rising to a challenge, it was Howard who decided it actually would be possible to run a real steam train hauling wooden carriages on the Underground to celebrate its 150th anniversary. That event was an incredible success, launching the whole year’s celebrations and bringing with it international attention and acclaim.
Howard was the lead for London Rail and Underground for the 2012 Olympic Games which rapidly became a full time job. He was deservedly awarded the OBE for his work on this.
The inevitable round of meetings and reports morphed into the practicalities of the Games themselves and most nights we would find him at Stratford Station, personal megaphone in hand, giving home-going spectators his own subtle brand of encouragement. We are sure there are still some passengers looking for the Jubilee line’s First Class carriages which were (he always said) “at the far end”.
When all the crowds had gone we often walked through the deserted station for our own journeys home and what was often only a short night’s sleep before starting it all over again the next day.
Howard was one of five of us who shared, in rotation, continuous responsibility for transport - forming the Senior Transport Operator’s Group. As luck would have it, the rota often had him handing over to me which was always comforting as any issues arising on his watch were always resolved and never passed on. All of the agencies involved in the Olympics took great reassurance from his calm and authoritative style – indeed I have never seen him ruffled no matter what the circumstances!
He was completely absorbed and interested in all the transport being provided for the Games – not just the Underground. He found time to visit most of the venues and talk to everyone working there on transport. There are, in cyberspace, I am sure, thousands of photographs of him with individuals and small groups – TfL staff, others’ staff, volunteers, and of course, everyone who recognized him from “The Tube”……..
But having made such a contribution to the best Olympic Games ever what was left for him to do? So it was that the challenge of Sydney Trains became attractive enough for Howard to part company with his only ever employer and uproot his family to just about as far away as you can get. He will use his vast accumulated knowledge, experience and personal style to drive up quality and efficiency in his new home.
We all wish him huge success in Sydney – fortunately modern communications mean we will hear from him and he will hear from us! And with his ever-attendant sense of timing, he arrives in Sydney just in time to see the closure of that city’s monorail system a few days later…….