Bad decisions and poor planning: Why Crossrail went wrong

A report published today by the UK public spending watchdog, the National Audit Office (NAO), has criticized Crossrail Ltd for bad decisions and poor planning traceable to 2015, which it says delayed London’s new railway and drove up costs unnecessarily.

It reveals multiple and serious problems the Crossrail Ltd board grappled with long before it admitted in August 2018 that it could not open the central section, as planned, in December that year.

The report will add to scathing criticism of the project leadership leveled recently by MPs and the Transport Committee of the London Assembly. 

A key finding is that changes required to designs and schedules on most of the 36 main contracts bumped costs up by more than £2.5bn between 2013 and 2018. Unforeseen clashes between contractors, working for example on stations and system-wide installations, forced design changes, delays and compensation awards to contractors.

The NAO said the fixed completion date of December 2018 kept driving Crossrail Ltd’s decision making even after serious problems put that goal at risk, with damaging consequences.

Despite insisting on the deadline, Crossrail Ltd did not produce a sufficiently detailed delivery plan until late in 2018, the NAO said.

"Consequently," the report said, "Crossrail Ltd had a gap in its understanding of delivery risks and the likelihood of meeting the December 2018 opening date."

Bad decisions include one in early 2018 to start testing trains even as construction proceeded, with a view to getting early an indication of signalling issues.

According to the NAO, this testing proved of limited use and consumed precious spare time and space needed by the construction workers.

In addition, still anticipating completion in December 2018, Crossrail Ltd cut staff from central programme and risk management teams during that year. Now, said the NAO, it is trying to rehire these personnel, but has faced recruitment challenges.

On releasing the report, Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, 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."

He added: "While we cannot make an overall assessment of value for money until Crossrail is complete, there have been a number of choices made in the course of this project that have clearly damaged public value."

Responding to the report, Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the Committee of Public Accounts, 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."

The NAO provided case studies of specific contract interface clashes.

In March 2013, Crossrail Ltd awarded the contract for communications and control systems in the central section – things like CCTV and PA systems – to Siemens, with a projected cost at the time of £43m, which would rise.

But to deliver and test the systems, Siemens depended on the contractors building stations to install the necessary infrastructure.

In the event, system installation and handover for testing were significantly delayed, with a gap between planned and actual progress opening up by the middle of 2017 and widening into the second quarter of 2018.

Crossrail Ltd ordered the ramping up of resources to accelerate delivery of the contract, and this, plus higher-than-expected costs of the technicians, led to a further hike in the contract’s cost from £116m to £139m between April and December 2018 alone.

Similar stories are recorded for the construction of Paddington Station and the installation of track and systems in the tunnels. All these clashes caused significant costs and delays.

Between February 2017 and December 2018 the forecast final cost of the contract to install track and key systems in the tunnels increased by 80%, from £532m to £956m, the NAO said.

"By 2015, problems started to emerge on Crossrail and opportunities to change approach were missed," said the report, adding that the sponsors, the UK’s Department for Transport and Transport for London, "had few effective contractual levers to enable them to take action as they had provided Crossrail Ltd with a high degree of autonomy".

Referred to as Europe’s biggest infrastructure project, and originally due to be completed in December 2018, Crossrail is a 118-km east-west railway across greater London, which tunnels for more than 40km under central London.

Due to problems in the central London stretch, its budget has bulged from £14.8bn (in 2010) to £17.6bn.

On 25 April Crossrail Ltd said its new target for completing the central section was a six-month window ending March 2021.

Rating agency Moody’s calculated that the delay in opening will cost Transport for London £1bn in lost revenue, The Financial Times reported this week.

Image: Crossrail is a 118-km east-west railway that tunnels for more than 40km under central London (Crossrail Ltd)

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  1. Aren’t the NAO wonderful, having the luxury of criticising the Contractor’s Construction Management, after the event! This is, as stated, Europe’s biggest Infrastructure project, tunnelling 40km under London, with too many unknowns, costs were bound to escalate. Even the best contractors & project managers do not have crystal balls! Once completed this will be a project that GB can be rightly proud of, another jewel in London’s crown. The costs of HS2 have already started to escalate & it’s hardly commenced! If these NAO ‘experts’ are so cleaver, perhaps they should be seconded to the Project Management of HS2, so that it will be brought in on time & on budget?

  2. nothing new then

  3. These over runs to major contracts are not just limited to the UK, but in Europe, Middle East and Africa, where governments are “mortgaging” their assets of ports and transit facilities to pay for such extended costs.
    The NAO is a necessary functionary, independent of contractual pressures to highlight these issues that give rise to such extended contracts. As soon as the contract has been agreed, Contract Management teams are under extreme pressure to deliver, in some cases outcomes they had no say in; the NAO experts, as suggested could be used to independently overview such contracts,
    however would their findings be listened to, as history (and my fifty years of experience) has demonstrated is unlikely.

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