The US-born executive won plaudits for his stewardship of London Underground, but the west coast main line could be a sterner test
Tim O’Toole, the US-born chief executive of FirstGroup, has scored many public and political points during nearly a decade in the UK. He won over the doubters when he was plucked from the American railfreight industry to run London Underground nine years ago, but the west coast franchise presents another reputational test.
O’Toole was a surprise choice when he was appointed Underground boss by the then mayor, Ken Livingstone, in 2003. Up until that point the Pittsburgh-born lawyer had made his reputation as chief executive of the Philadelphia railfreight company Consolidated Rail Corporation (Conrail), which allowed Livingstone to unleash one of his better quips – that O’Toole had transported cattle in better conditions than many tube passengers were used to.
In his time working for the Underground, O’Toole grappled with the doomed £30bn public-private partnership to upgrade the network, and received a CBE for the organisation’s emergency response to the 7 July bombing attacks. By the time he left to return to his native US in 2009, he had been described as London’s best public servant.
Stephen Glaister, a professor and former board member at Transport for London, the authority that oversees the Underground, said of O’Toole’s tenure: “He has been a spectacular success. He has had to deal with an awful lot of very difficult situations.”
O’Toole’s experience with the US was an important factor in his return to these shores a year later, when he was appointed chief executive of FirstGroup. Although based in Aberdeen and the owner of substantial bus and rail businesses in the UK, FirstGroup is the largest school bus operator in America, and the US accounts for 50% of the group’s profits. It means that O’Toole spends half his time on the other side of the Atlantic. But if the west coast contract does not go to plan, the UK will doubtless be seeing a lot more of the 57-year-old.