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CIO Profile: TfL's Steve Townsend on shared services and internal balance

Meeting Steve Townsend, CIO of Transport for London (TfL) at the organisation's offices near the O2 Arena is a little apt. It requires you to travel on one of the newest lines on London's extensive Underground network.

It's like a vision of what the rest of the network should be like. Unfortunately, the reality is not quite so new and sparkly.

The remit of the company is vast. Around two billion passengers travelled on London's 8500 buses last year; every day 3.5 million journeys are made on the Tube; and more than 10 million Tube, bus and train passenger journeys a day are paid for using the Oyster contactless card.

In all, 24 million journeys are made every day over the whole TfL network.

Mention public transport to anyone in London and you'll get a strong response, so it's not surprising that Townsend is not the most open CIO I have ever interviewed.

Public transport is a political football and as a senior executive at TfL, he has learned to play the political game. Having said that, he is prepared to discuss the areas where he thinks improvements in the systems that support the city's transport networks can be made.

Townsend is a relatively old hand in TfL, having risen from the role of director of information management in his four and a half years at the organisation.

He took the role from Ian Campbell, who succeeded Phil Pavitt, now CIO at HMRC. They are big boots to fill by anyone's standards, but Townsend clearly has the experience he needs to help him.

As we look out onto the River Thames - once London's most important travel artery in its own right - Townsend explains that TfL is essentially divided up into two businesses. The first focuses on London Underground and the overground rail network within London.

Some of the IT requirement for this division is around sharing core services and commodity IT. Others are more bespoke, such as rail operations management and rolling stock asset management, which are predominantly in-house operations.

The other side of the organisation is concerned with surface traffic management, such as street lighting, traffic lights and the Congestion Charge.

Most of this side of the business is franchised out, so as far as Townsend is concerned he has to make sure both these different ways of working are supported by the necessary technology.

What draws both these two sides of the operation together is the metropolitan infrastructure it serves.

"I guess the commonality between the two areas is that they both have to move people around London," says Townsend.

Between these two operational businesses sits a third unit which supports processes such as HR, marketing and customer services. Townsend has to support those systems too.

TfL is guided by the London Assembly transport policy, drawn up by the office of Mayor Boris Johnson. It is this document that ultimately determines the direction of Townsend's own IT strategy.

"We are also guided by the influences of London's need for public transport, so things like the Olympics which is going to be key in the next 12 to 18 months."

For Townsend, the changes he has to put in place for London 2012 will have to be in use long after the Games end.

Engine driver
Townsend sees his job as supporting one of the engines that keeps the whole city going. A fully functioning transport network keeps the city a relatively stable place to live and work, and for businesses to operate in.

This in turn maintains the city's reputation as a commercial hub and a driver of the country's economy.

This vast task is made more complicated by the relatively fluid nature of the metropolitan environment. The population of London is continually growing, so TfL is constantly having to re-assess its capabilities to meet travel demands.

On top of this, the demographic of the city is slowly but constantly changing, with new businesses opening up in areas that were previously less commercially concentrated, as other industries die away. This has an impact on residential areas and TfL has to provide commuter connections between the two.

One development that Townsend is convinced will have an impact on the travel landscape is the CrossRail project, which will create a continuous link between the west of the city and the east.

This will provide a freer flow of traffic on that axis, releasing some areas of the city from isolation and relieving pressure on other areas where the demand for public transport is unmanageably high.

"This is one of the exciting things about London. It's constantly reinventing itself and we as an organisation have to reflect that," says Townsend.

This spirit of reinvention is also driving a review of the management structures within TfL and the attendant corporate culture that is shaped by these movers and shakers within the organisation.

This is a response to the current economic climate and the realisation that TfL needs to integrate better with the other authorities that operate the utility services that keep London going. This is no less the case within the IT department.

"The historical structures need to be reviewed in great detail and the economic climate is tempering these events," says Townsend.

"Our strategies have to be focused around efficiencies to get this done. IT needs to engage with the organisation to truly understand what it needs in the future and with the wider Greater London Authority family."