Ajit Chambers from The Old London Underground Company has been moved a large step closer to re-opening 26 old abandoned Tube stations. Although some newspapers (The Independent& Standard) have recently reported that Boris has given the go-ahead, the exact details are that Boris has asked Richard Parry (Strategy and Commercial Director for London Underground) and Anthony Browne (the mayor's economics director) to work together to help with the due diligence needed to get the project off the ground.. This will be a thorough investigation on the engineering, health & safety and risks involved in re-opening the stations.
I had a long conversation with Ajit on Monday night to find out more about the plans which he's been working full time on over the past two years. Ajit has put together a consortium of companies to work on a ton of items including finance, engineering, marketing, health & safety so that the company is already to built and ready to "go operational immediately" on the day the green light is given to the first site.
I first blogged about Chambers in September 2009, when plans had been initially "warmly accepted" by the Mayor. Since then he has been working till the small hours determined to cover every small detail see the project through.
He knows that this is a major challenge, there are huge hurdles to face, but he said that's what makes it interesting to him and his team. Essentially Chambers' model "allows private business to profit while adding value to the sites through funding the addition of health & safety sequentially over the term of the leases that are still owned by TfL. They will get a revenue stream (without paying anything) and at the end of the lease term TfL will have the option to take the stations back over with health and safety certification allowing them to be used for infrastructure or continue taking profit in a ‘business as usual’ format under TfL's ownership as a landlord".
The plan allows for each station will have three different types of revenue streams across different market sectors, much like an equity fund - tourism, storage space and entertainment venues (venues will become more than just bars, restaurants & clubs). This will enable cross marketing for very different experiences. Chambers said "For example if one private business wanted to open up a station for rock climbing, there would also be space for a coffee, juice bar, restaurant or jazz club to run alongside and service the same customers".
Some of the stations that he is looking at reopening are Down Street, Aldwych, South Kentish Town, Brompton Road and York Road. I asked whether he felt it would be easier getting backing for some rather than others. Chambers said that this was up to the businesses providing the finance. He said "I know that there are 4 -6 stations that would be easier to set up to make revenue than others. But I don't want this to be totally my decision. That's also why it's so great to have Richard Parry on board. He has the engineering and London Underground experience to advise which options are most feasible."
I asked whether there were any examples of closed subway systems outside of London opening. He said. "I spoke to The Mayor of New Yorks colleagues two years ago, and they've managed to open up their old station under City Hall already, how did we manage to let the Americans go first!? However at the moment it's just a tour at specific times and for specific groups of people. They haven’t managed to add volume as they haven't got the financial structure that I have designed for London."
Always enthusiastic, as I know there's a huge amount of interest in London right now in exploring mysterious parts of the capital (including the Underground), I asked when he felt the earliest might be for one of the stations to re-opening. "I'm throwing everything I have at it to get one open in time for the Olympics." he said. This was actually much sooner than I thought. "Basically a station could be opened fairly quickly for a simple tourist walk-through. That will bring in enough turnover to keep businesses happy as the station is re-built and renovated behind Perspex as part of the attraction."
I had seen comments on the internet questioning whether Chambers actually had a business at all (or that it had gone under). Chambers, an ex-banker, wasn't as offended by me bringing up this issue as I thought he'd be. He felt that at this stage talking about whether he did or didn't have a limited company wasn't really relevant until an investor group was decided on. What was relevant was having the business ready to deliver and he has worked hard to get the consortium of companies in place. He said "Any limited company or Joint Venture contract will act as the vehicle for the work when the investor group is formed. Besides, the option of London Underground running more of the show, will always be available to Richard and Anthony".
Chambers has had personal meetings with over two hundred companies including the Merlin Group, Visit London, Mott Macdonald, Kingsbridge, Sir-Robert-Mcalpine, Coca Cola, Vodafone, The Museum of London, Marsh, Morris Visitor Publications, Silverman Sherliker, Crossrail, CBS Outdoor, Wragge, Jaia, Sainsbury’s, EDF, and City of London Corporation. He said "this is to specifically ‘pre-set up’ each sector's inter-relationships from funding to global marketing the product in aircraft and hotels in Europe and the Americas". As mentioned above, seeing the sites as tourist attractions is only a third of the equation. He's in final talks with an Austrian company who are keen to make one of the stations into a museum. Their business plan shows a 16 million Euro Return on Investment after year four on site one.
Chambers' financial team has calculated a total turnover of £200 million would be created for the economy during the lifecycle of the build of the group of sites and is kicking off an exciting promotion where he will talk at the opening day of Grand Designs LIVE with Kevin McCloud to run a UK wide competition to design the first site.
With more long working days ending at 5am, Ajit is working on a laptop that has already had its screen and hard drive replaced once, the keyboard twice, the mother board and the graphics card twice through pure working hours on the project.
Chambers is making contacts on an hourly basis with businesspeople, designers and individuals with the ability and the will to build what could be a fabulous group of venues. He said "This product is deserved by all of London, and we are merely the management consultancy creating the project."
With dogged determination to see this through and the excellent guidance of Richard Parry and Anthony Browne, he is edging ever closer to the end goal. As Ajit says "behind every product is a person - the person who changed their pencil-drawn idea into a reality for everyone to enjoy and use.".
I wish him every success with the venture and watch this space, as Ajit has promised to keep us updated with developments.