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Off the rails

14 May 2019 by Kirsty-Anne Jasper

Off the rails

Numerous failures leave Crossrail project overbudget and behind schedule

The Crossrail project was always ambitious, covering 73 miles from east to west across London. But the Elizabeth Line, as it is to be officially known, has been besieged by problems from the beginning.

The new railway will run beneath London from Reading and Heathrow in the west through central tunnels across to Shenfield and Abbey Wood in the east. It is Europe’s largest infrastructure project and will increase central London rail capacity by 10%; the largest increase since World War Two. Construction begun on the project a decade ago but has suffered from a series of delays and a spiralling budget.

Now, a National Audit Office (NAO) report into the delayed transport project has now found that the desire to cling to an ‘unrealistic timeframe’ is responsible for the delays and damage to public value. The NAO found that problems were apparent as early as 2015, yet Crossrail Ltd did not take many opportunities, which were presented, to change approach nor produce a sufficiently detailed delivery plan to track its progress.

The rail line was originally due to open in December 2018 but the NAO report states that Crossrail’s: “compressed schedule, contractual model, loss of downward pressure on costs, and absence of an achievable plan were set against an atmosphere where ‘can do’ became unrealistic”, leaving the deadline an unfeasible prospect.

Crossrail announced in April that the core section is now not due to open until March 2021, but the NAO has warned that Crossrail had not yet fully assessed the delay’s impact on costs.

Even at this delayed stage of opening there will be gaps in the network, with Bond Street station not due to open until a year after the rest of the network due to tunnelling problems.

Crossrail’s chief executive, Mark Wild, told the London Assembly that: “The top priority at Bond Street is to get the subterranean areas in a position they can support the train rather than everybody waiting to get the train going because Bond Street isn’t quite ready, and that’s why an intervention is needed”.

The project has been in turmoil for some time with changes to design and schedules leading to increased costs on most of the project’s 36 main contracts. The NAO report said that, as of December 2018, the costs of civil engineering works at Whitechapel station alone, had escalated to £659m – six times the amount originally budgeted, and more than double the estimate in 2015. The overall budget for Crossrail has risen from £14.8bn to £17.6bn.

Lack of Accountability

The high degree of autonomy allowed to Crossrail Ltd from the scheme’s sponsors, Transport for London (TfL) and the Department for Transport, must surely be examined in light of the projects repeated failings. As the December 2018 deadline approached, the NAO report states that Crossrail “had a gap in its understanding of delivery risks and the likelihood of meeting the December 2018 opening date”. It said that “assumptions about the level of progress that was achievable bore little resemblance to the historic progress that contractors had made”.

Crossrail’s failings are clear to see, but so too are the lack of accountability that they were affording, allowing for “choices that clearly damaged public value”. The London assembly transport committee was damming of TfL in its report on project leadership, issued in April, which accused The Transport for London’s Commissioner, Mike Brown, of downplaying risks about the infrastructure scheme in weekly updates to London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan. The report went as far as to question his suitability for the role, stating: “Given the strong evidence presented in this report, we recommend that the Commissioner reflects on whether he is fit to fulfil his role in TfL”.

Brown refused the call to quit, instead stating that the ‘buck stops’ with previous Crossrail management. He went on to state that: ““I’m not reflecting on whether I’m fit to be in position. I believe I am, I’ve got [the] full support of the mayor, and that’s the end of the issue for me”.

The head of the NAO, Amyas Morse, said: “Throughout delivery, and even as pressures mounted, Crossrail Ltd clung to the unrealistic view that it could complete the programme to the original timetable, which has had damaging consequences”.

One of these choices, was the decision to push ahead with early testing despite it being “of limited use [which] took any spare time and space from construction workers on site”. Meg Hillier, the chair of the public accounts committee, said the programme had been mired by spiralling costs and delays. She said: “It is concerning that Crossrail Ltd deluded itself for so long about its ability to meet its original opening date and the £17bn-plus programme’s project management was not up to the job”.

Future Concerns

Mark Wild, has said that it will review the NAO recommendations carefully. He said the new leadership team had “undertaken a detailed audit of the outstanding works and produced a robust and realistic plan to complete the Elizabeth line and bring the railway into passenger service at the earliest possible date”.

However, this does little to alleviate fears for both the outcome of the Crossrail project as well as other pending transport infrastructure. The High Speed 2 (HS2) line, which is scheduled to open in phases between 2026 and 2033, will directly connect London, Birmingham, the East Midlands, Leeds and Manchester on a high speed railway.

The project has raised questions about costs and viability. The issues identified by the NAO may give ammunition to those seeking to scrap the HS2 project, risking future growth. Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester, and Steve Rotheram, Mayor of the Liverpool city region, have been huge supporters of the project, claiming that the economic output of Greater Manchester could double to around £132bn by 2050, contributing 40,000 new jobs. As well as Liverpool city region forecasting £15bn of economic growth and 24,000 new jobs.

In order for this project to be green-lighted and completed successfully, on time and within budget, serious lessons in governance and accountability need to be learnt from the Crossrail fiasco. To do so will not only enable the London project to be completed, at last but to build a blueprint for successful infrastructure for the rest of the UK. 

Kirsty-Anne Jasper is Deputy Editor of Governance and Compliance 

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