The thing is, there must be 50 ways to screw up a £1bn project, and if you can think of 25 of them, you’re a genius. We talk to a man who’s trying to do even better than that …

Gary Walker
Gary Walker

Why would a firm whose name is already synonymous with large prestige projects feel the need to launch a specialist major projects division? This is the question that Gary Walker, director of said division at Arup, has spent a great deal of the past six months answering. After all this presentation practice, he’s worked out a handy allusion: “It’s all about joining the front end up with the back end. I think I’ll have to draw a pantomime horse.”

In Walker’s terminology, the back end of a major project is the implementation phase. All too often, it really is the stuff of pantomime, with projects pulled in three directions at once by time, cost and quality constraints, and at risk of being tripped up by public protests or greater-crested newts. Meanwhile, the front-end pre-project planning - which should have identified and planned for these issues - is left in the hands of politicians, chief executives, amorphous public - private partnerships or IT boffins.

Arup Major Projects’ job is to connect the two halves. The new division would cast itself in the role of “project champion”, guiding schemes worth £300m or more from their origins on an organisation’s wish list to the starting line. At that point, a project should have its own funding, clear objectives, commitment from the stakeholders, and a communications policy to ensure buy-in from everyone it affects.

Once a scheme reaches that milestone, the project team would have such a clear idea of the route ahead that any deviations in the back end would be far less likely. Plus, when the green light flashes, Arup Major Projects will be in pole position to take on a more conventional project management role. “Traditionally, a client decides there is a business case, then goes directly to the engineers and contractors. Because of our knowledge, expertise and flexibility, we’re offering an alternative.”

If Walker redrew the project pantomime horse to his model, it would be a sleek, well-co-ordinated thoroughbred. The budget escalations seen on the Scottish parliament building would be unthinkable, as would the mid-project disputes faced by Multiplex on the Wembley national stadium. In other words, AMP is just the kind of animal John Prescott might need to steer the development of the Thames Gateway, or the London 2012 team might like to call on to co-ordinate the London Olympics if it bids successfully in July.

We took something that was given a 14% chance of success and delivered it ahead of schedule

The idea for the division came from Arup’s new chairman, infrastructure specialist Terry Hill. In search of someone “with passion” to head the nascent organisation, Hill turned to the project manager he knew from the Channel Tunnel Rail Link. Walker was head of major projects for Railtrack between 1994 and 1999 and was responsible for the £2bn Thameslink 2000 and the commercial implementation of the £6bn CTRL, when Railtrack co-financed Union Railways, one of the two companies behind the scheme. After resigning in 1999, he worked out his notice at Railtrack with a six-month stint as programme director of the ill-fated West Coast Main Line.

But it is his first Railtrack project on the Heathrow Express rail link, that he sees as the pinnacle of his career so far. Walker was responsible for 13 miles of surface works from Paddington station in west London. Although he was not involved in the tunnel and car park collapses at the Heathrow end, he says he learned a lot from BAA’s response to them. “They moved away from a blame culture, and said ‘we’ve got something to build’,” he says.

“From an aesthetic point of view, I’m not proud of what I’ve done to Brunel’s skyline - I’m not sure he’d be too impressed by all the gantries and wires. But from a project perspective, we took something that was given a 14% chance of success, in a traditional public-sector environment, and delivered it ahead of schedule.”

Before Railtrack, Walker spent six years in project management for Bovis, working on an RAF project and at Waterloo International Terminal. Although he was not personally involved in Bovis’ seminal Broadgate scheme in the City of London, he was caught up in the revolution that brought US-style construction management to the UK construction industry and indirectly led to the creation of construction management firms such as Mace. In 1999, he was in fact recruited by Mace’s Bob White to head up the firm’s transportation division. He left in 2002 to set up Walker Rail Consult.

As Dr Walker, the 47-year-old is holder of what he believes is one of two doctoral theses in the country on project management. He studied at London South Bank University from 1994 to 1999 with sponsorship from his then-employer, Railtrack. “They had so many failed major projects, I think they wanted to find out the reasons why!” he quips.

So what would Walker’s approach to Network Rail’s current headache, the west coast route modernisation, be? “I would rethink the goals, get it totally aligned with all the shareholders, including the passengers, the lobbyists, the regional authorities, every life it touches along the route. Everyone has to be comfortable with the plans and the goals.”

The industry is focused on partnering, But often there isn't enough attention to the reasons that we do major projects in the first place

AMP might still be waiting for the call from Network Rail, but it has picked up a hat trick of commissions since Walker took up his post last autumn. It is programme managing a “performance improvement programme” for British Energy, strategic adviser for Land Securities on the proposed regeneration of Kent Thameside, and project managing software development for BT Syntegra on its £1.6bn London region contract for the NHS’ patient care record scheme. AMP is now on target to meet its five-year fee target of £10m within one year.

As for how those fees compare with conventional back-end project management, Walker prefers to ask how much clients can save. “Clients can spend five years and invest millions on countless feasibility studies. But we bring continuity so the client isn’t going round in circles. We’re adding value and saving clients millions.”

To secure further work, the team will track major projects internationally, through what Walker ominously refers to as Arup’s “intelligence network”. At the same time, he is developing a global major projects capability. In each of Arup’s 72 offices, Walker has identified the individuals to deliver the AMP ethos to clients. The plan is to run major projects locally rather than from London, because of cultural nuances and staff sustainability.

However, “exporting specialist capability” would also be an option. Walker clearly believes there is a niche for AMP, partly because the UK construction industry has become so geared to project delivery that it forgets about the original drivers of a project. “My viewpoint is that the industry is focused very much on partnering, on getting contracts aligned to a win–win concept.

But often there isn’t enough understanding of major projects or attention to the reasons that we do them in the first place.”

It’s not an accusation that could be levelled against the great engineers of the past: Brunel, for instance, always knew he was in the service of social change. With Arup Major Projects, perhaps Walker sees a chance to pay back a debt to his hero.

Case study one: Powering up British Energy

Over the next three years, electricity generator British Energy is planning to increase its generating output by reducing the amount of unplanned downtime at its generating stations.

Arup was initially appointed to carry out an assessment of British Energy's business operations and the condition of its infrastructure, with a view to renewing and upgrading them where necessary. To improve generating reliability, British Energy is planning to spend more than £200m a year, from 2005 to 2008, on improving generating plant. Once the deterioration in its assets have been redressed, funding will revert to a long-term "steady state" investment of more than £100m a year.

A project this size needs careful management to maximise the value of the investment. British Energy was concerned that it did not have enough experienced project managers. To develop a capability in house would take time - more time than the project start date of 1 April 2005 would allow. So British Energy turned to Arup Major Projects to manage capital spending, planning, development and implementation.

Case study two: Regenerating Kent Thameside

In north Kent, Land Securities is embarking on one of the largest regeneration projects in Europe. A 20-year development programme will transform 648 ha of chalk quarry and brownfield land into a thriving urban centre for the Thames Gateway. The high-speed Channel Tunnel Rail Link will create a direct 15-minute rail journey from Ebbsfleet to central London. The entire development will provide about 700,000 m2 of high quality commercial space, 14,000 residential housing units, and 300,000 m2 of community support facilities.

Arup Major Projects has been appointed to provide programme management services to the project, assisting the existing Land Securities development and project management team. Arup's role is to help create the overall business strategy, handle risk and stakeholder management, offer technical support to the planning process and manage the designs, cost planning and programming of the project.

Case study three: Improve the NHS' memory

BT is the prime contractor on one of the most ambitious IT healthcare programmes in the world. It has a 10-year contract - worth £620m - to design, deliver and manage a national patient database and a transactional messaging service for the NHS. The database will hold electronic summaries of patients' records. These secure records will be available nationally to clinicians and medical practitioners so that patients will no longer have to repeat information about their medical history.

Arup Major Projects will work with BT's systems integration subsidiary Syntegra. Other companies involved in the project include Oracle, Sun Microsystems and LogicaCMG. AMP has been engaged as the overall programme manager for the deployment phase of this scheme, which has a total value at £1bn.

The consultant's role will involve the design and implementation of the software and hardware data management systems of the record system throughout the Greater London Area.