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9 January 2013
Today, the London Underground is 150 years old. Other major cities, such as New York, didn’t even get their equivalents in the same century (1904 in case you wanted to know). Whilst we Londoners both love and loathe it simultaneously, we can’t imagine life without it. For those of you interested, there are some facts (150 of them, obviously) here. Whats the link? Those of you who saw me speak on SEPA last year, may have seen me draw the parallels between SEPA and the underground system. Indeed, I used the Tokyo subway specifically. If you’ve ever been to Tokyo, or at least when I first went 20 years ago, you’ll know that a map in English, and in colour, is an essential tool to get around. My slide in the presentation was that map, yet I pretended it was a topography of the European payments networks, and there were sharp intakes of breath as they saw the complexity the map depicted. Now we know the system works, with the London Underground carrying millions of passengers every day through tunnels over 150 years old. But if we had a magic wand, and could start over, is this what we’d really build? No. We’d move stations to where we need them today. We’d make the tunnels bigger, to fit bigger trains. We’d make it so over-ground trains could utilise more of the network. In fact, whilst we’d build on our experience, and changing needs, we’d tinker or replace pretty much everything. But no-one would ever attempt that, for reasons from cost to complexity. Yet that is exactly what SEPA is trying to do – and at the same time as we’re using the old network too. Yes, we all expect there to be problems as the deadline approaches – frankly, in a project this size and complex we’d be worried if there weren’t problems! But we also have to remember that the tracks that are being laid down now may be used for the payments equivalent of the next 150 years. Perhaps we should be judging the success over those kind of time scales, not by how many days or months some parties miss the impending deadlines. We have the benefit of hindsight that these systems tend to last, whilst the Victorians didn’t.