The men behind the metro


    by Andrew White

    It’s already iconic, at least in this part of the world. Along with the Burj Al Arab and the Burj Dubai, the city’s metro system has become a part of the skyline, despite having never opened its sliding doors to the paying public.

    Dubai residents have spent years watching concrete pillars setting in the sunshine, twenty-tonne tracks being lowered into position like Scalextric sets, and golden, beetle-shaped Metro stations burrow out of the dusty ground. But just a month from now, we’ll be riding the rails – and pouring profits into the pockets of a multibillion-dollar firm that has so far been happy to stay out of the spotlight.

    More than 15 Dubai Metro stations have already been handed over to Serco, a UK-based support services company, which has been given the contract for the metro operations for the next 10 years. According to an agreement worth around $825m, Serco will run the operations control centre, provide train attendants and all staff at the stations and maintain rolling stock, track and station facilities.

    The UK press has dubbed Serco “the biggest company you’ve never heard of”, referring to its low public profile for a company of 50,000 employees operating in no less than 30 countries. Contracts with the US Air Force, National Security Agency and Homeland Security Agency contribute to an annual turnover of $5bn, while the FTSE, Britain’s top share index, hit a 10-month closing high last Friday with Serco as its top gainer, up 3.8 percent.

    At the same time, its Porsche 911-driving CEO espouses a business model “that actually says we won’t just make profits, but we will look at how people are treated”. So what kind of service can we expect from the silent giant?

    Well, Serco started off in the glamorous world of cinema-cleaning, picking up popcorn after the credits had rolled. Today in the UK alone it runs education authorities, welfare to work schemes, leisure centres, military support services, the country’s Ballistic Missile Early Warning System, two immigration removal centres, and now two prisons – Belmarsh Prison in London and Maghull Prison in Liverpool.

    It goes without saying that custodial experience should stand Serco in good stead if it comes to any disorderly behaviour on the Metro: a few inebriated expats should pose no problems to a group used to quelling prison riots. Belmarsh has been dubbed ‘Britain’s own Guantanamo Bay’, while Maghull used to be a high security psychiatric hospital. In short, these ticket inspectors have friends with tear gas, so sit down and shut up.

    But on a more serious note, those familiar with the UK’s rotten rail system will be hoping that Serco can do a better job than those responsible for the overpriced, understaffed and oft-delayed carriages that currently compose the majority of Britain’s rail network.

    The precedents are encouraging. Serco already runs the Docklands Light Railway in London, as well as Mersey Rail and Northern Trains. On the DLR, Serco has promised punctuality of more than 96% for trains and customer satisfaction levels of at least 90%. Mersey Rail was the best performing franchise in Britain in April this year, with 97.4% of trains arriving on time. And Northern Rail recorded 94 percent for the same period – in mid-table but an improvement over past performance.

    Outsourcing is a cost-crunching business and Serco will be looking to make big money on Dubai’s metro. But at the same time, this is such a high-profile step in Dubai’s headlong rush to modernity, that we can’t afford any cut corners. Let’s hope we get the Serco that looks at how people are treated; and not just its shareholders. If we want a metro we can be proud of, then we’re relying on the biggest company we’ve never heard of to deliver.