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Tim O'Toole, American director of London Tube, reflects on tragedy

LONDON—Tim O'Toole walked into his office at about a quarter to nine on Thursday, having finished his regular morning conference call about the state of the world's oldest subway system—the system he was hired three years ago to help rebuild.

The former Philadelphia railroad executive—now London Underground Managing Director—was still lifted by the news, then 18 hours old, that his adopted city would host the 2012 Olympics. It was big boost for what Londoners call the Tube, which will play a huge role in ferrying spectators and athletes to the games.

Suddenly his mobile phone buzzed with a text message: Workers were reporting a substantial power outage on the north side of the Circle Line, a major commuter route.

He walked down the hall to the network control center, where electronic sensors told of one derailment, then another, then a third major incident.

Even before he saw on television that a double-decker bus had been blown up, he knew that this was no accident.

Then came the reports of bodies on the tracks.

What followed was an hours-long odyssey of crisis management that at times required quick decisions, and at other times meant simply standing helplessly, listening to accounts of horror and heroism.

Later, after the adrenaline had ebbed, the anger set in.

"I was just furious that people did this to my passengers," said O'Toole, 49, sitting in his office on the 7th floor of the underground's headquarters on Saturday, one day after restoring subway service to all but the areas around the explosions.

Officials in the control room Thursday morning first thought the initial reports pointed to a massive power system malfunction, O'Toole said. The Tube runs on electricity that it produces itself.

"We have these giant circuit breakers, and sometimes when they fire there's a big noise," O'Toole said. "So we're not thinking explosion here. We have incidents all the time. If your first thought was terrorism, you'd be shutting the network down constantly."

That electrical theory, relayed to journalists by Underground press officials and police, produced the erroneous first reports that "power surges" had caused explosions.

But even as that incorrect news was being broadcast to the world, Tube officials got a report of a third major problem near King's Cross. That's when they knew it was terrorism.

"A derailment is a huge event here," O'Toole said. "To have two, and then immediately afterward we get reports of something happening between King's Cross and Russell Square ... Now you're thinking, wait a second, this is beyond comprehension."

O'Toole began rushing underground management officials to each location.

Underground staff on the scene began reporting that people were walking on the tracks. Just three weeks before, the underground had conducted the latest in a series of terrorism drills. Now it was for real.

At 9:15 local time, the duty officer got O'Toole's permission to take the system to what's called Code Amber, which means moving all trains to platforms.

Hundreds of thousands of people were on those trains.

Over the next minutes and hours, O'Toole briefed London transport chief Bob Kiley, Mayor Ken Livingstone, and an aide to Prime Minister Tony Blair at the G-8 Summit in Scotland.

Once it became clear these were terrorist attacks, with police and emergency services mounting a rescue effort, O'Toole and other Tube officials immediately began planning how to restore service by re-routing around the affected areas, which would become sealed crime scenes.

They knew that thousands of stranded commuters were having to walk for miles to get home on Thursday. In a city of 7.2 million where 80 percent of commuters use some form of mass transit, the Underground is essential.

The goal of the attackers, they figured, was to paralyze London's transport system.

O'Toole and his colleagues were determined not to let that happen.

On Friday morning, after police had combed every train and every inch of track for other bombs, service resumed. A group of Tube employees who had helped rescue passengers received thanks personally from the prime minister.

"You have to think about these people whose loved ones died," O'Toole said. "So many people whose lives have just been ruined forever because of this. But it is not of the magnitude of Madrid and some of these other incidents and we can certainly be grateful for that."

His anger is mixed with pride, though—pride that the subway is back up and running.

"I think it's a big deal to the government and the country," he said.

"Because we're the thing that people are pointing at—`Hey, they came back.' So what did these bombers accomplish, besides slaughtering a few innocent people? Nothing."

Born and raised in Pittsburgh, O'Toole attended La Salle University in Philadelphia, then spent 20 years in the city with Consolidated Rail Co. He was general counsel when the railroad was swallowed in a 1997 takeover and served as chief executive until 2001, as the merger was gradually implemented and Conrail ceased to exist.

In 2002, he was lured across the Atlantic by another American, London transport chief Kiley, and London's mayor Livingstone. He started work in London in 2003.

He came at a pivotal time for the Tube, which is undergoing a multi-billion-dollar modernization program to better serve the 3 million people who ride daily in often-crowded cars through narrow tunnels dug in the 19th century.

The improvements are coming after years of neglect. With 12 lines, 275 stations and 253 miles of track, the Underground is as an efficient way for tourists to get around central London. But after decades of underinvestment, the Tube sometimes inflicts on commuters a crushing ordeal of cramped trains and service interruptions.

The tunnels are so narrow that normal air conditioning can't be installed—there is no place for the expelled hot air to go. The cramped dimensions are part of why police are having such trouble recovering bodies from one of the explosion scenes, hundreds of feet under King's Cross Station.

Among the upgrades installed under O'Toole's tenure is a software system connected to a series of sensors placed on the trains and along the tracks.

The system produces real-time computer images of where the trains are, and, if there is a problem, which pieces of equipment have malfunctioned.

That system is why O'Toole and other Tube officials knew, well before police finally acknowledged it on Saturday, that the initial announced timeline of the attacks was wrong, and that in fact the three tube explosions happened within seconds of one another at about 8:51 a.m., a high degree of coordination that could provide crucial clues.

The timing of the explosions raises the possibility that all the bombs were placed on the trains at King's Cross Station, which may help police as they comb through the massive amount of closed-circuit camera footage.

Police initially said that a second explosion happened twenty minutes after the first, raising questions about whether Tube officials had shut down the system quickly enough to save lives.

In fact, "There wasn't anything you could have done to save another person," O'Toole said, sitting in an office overlooking Big Ben and St. Paul's Cathedral, wearing cufflinks with the Tube logo.


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTO on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Tim O'Toole

PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Tim O'Toole

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