The political sideshow around Crossrail does not help us understand why the £15bn infrastructure project is £2bn over budget, with no delivery date in sight

Chloe mcculloch black

Sadiq Khan says he knew nothing of Crossrail’s woes until the end of August last year. Former Crossrail boss Sir Terry Morgan says he briefed London’s mayor at the end of July. Quite frankly, who cares? This is a political sideshow that does not help us understand why the capital’s £15bn infrastructure project is £2bn over budget and counting, with no delivery date in sight.

The point is, say insiders, that the team would have known there were problems 18 months ago – so how come the positive PR mantra of “on time and on budget” was allowed to portray it as a darling project for so long? It was only in the summer that Crossrail finally came clean and admitted it would not hit its December 2018 opening date. At first this was blamed on complex signalling systems needed for the new trains. But gradually it has emerged that there were fundamental and interrelated problems centring on delays to the civils works, to the delivery of the trains, to the installation of signalling systems and to the integration and testing programmes.

In early 2018 dynamic train testing should have happened but did not – at that point, according to a project insider, it should have been clear all was not well. And yet it appears the reporting system on the project failed to get this message to the people at the top. It beggars belief that as late as last June, Crossrail’s own report to the joint sponsor board said the opening date was not at risk despite flagging various delivery problems on the programme.

How come the positive PR mantra of ‘on time and on budget’ was allowed to portray Crossrail as a darling project for so long? 

Also read: Crossrail - what went wrong and why

Timeline: Crossrail - how the delay unfolded

Even more bewildering is that Crossrail started winding down various parts of its operations over the summer in anticipation of completion. This really does display a remarkable lack of joined-up thinking – it would seem the folk on the ground knew work was not progressing fast enough but the senior managers did not and were therefore making decisions that would hamper the project further. With internal communications this bad, no wonder the PR messaging to the outside world was off whack.

That has now changed – Crossrail is being very open about the scale of the task ahead. The new chief executive, Mark Wild, has said there is a “huge amount of work still to do before the Elizabeth line can open”, pointing out there are still 6,000 workers on site and identifying two critical work paths: the dynamic testing of the trains in the tunnels and the core fit-out work to finish the nine central London stations – it’s the latter that is eating up the bulk of the project’s £30m weekly spend. He also said that his team is “fully focused on ensuring the Elizabeth line is completed as quickly as possible”, and to that end, it is urgently reviewing the work still required.   

Many in the industry are sympathetic to the situation Crossrail finds itself in. It’s easy to be critical from the outside but David Higgins, former HS2 chair and Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) boss, makes a valid point that to hold an infrastructure project of this size to an exact completion date that was an aspiration back in 2007 is unfair – much changes in the passing of more than a decade. And anyway, will the travelling public really be moaning once the service is up and running and their journeys across London are that bit easier? Unlikely.

Defenders also point out that Crossrail has got a lot of things right, at least in the sense that as a client it embraced best practice in procurement, using the NEC3 suite of contracts meant to foster fair allocation of risk and reward, bringing suppliers in early and selecting firms on value rather than cost. In many ways, Crossrail was seen to be following the example of the ODA by taking a proactive client approach. And in an industry full of projects where the supply chain battles daily to be paid on time, Crossrail has been praised for its adoption of project bank accounts.

Not surprisingly Crossrail’s works programme is being investigated by the London Assembly and the National Audit Office

And yet, in spite of all these good intentions the project is still not in a position to give a new opening date. Not surprisingly Crossrail’s works programme is being investigated by the London Assembly and the National Audit Office to understand exactly where things went wrong. We need the findings of these various probes made public as soon as possible so that others can learn from the mistakes. Infrastructure projects this costly and this critical to the country’s future economic growth have to be subject to a high level of scrutiny – anything less than a full and detailed report puts at risk the continued public support for them.

As for opinions within the industry, there is a general suspicion that projects with spiralling budgets and bust deadlines probably required more time and energy spent on them at the front end working on the design and planning. And this means involving the firms that are expected to do the delivery work sooner and in a more meaningful way. Industry leaders talk a great deal about early supply chain involvement but actually doing it appears to be beyond them. We end up with projects up and down the country still not fully involving delivery expertise early enough to make a critical difference to construction programmes. If that does not change soon, projects big and small will continue to disappoint.

Also read: Crossrail: what’s gone wrong – and why
Also visit: Building’s Crossrail hub page, with all the latest news and analysis on the project

Chloë McCulloch, editor, Building