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Crossrail's cost crusader

Crossrail - As Crossrail gets controversial Ed Owen talks to the man in charge, former ICE president Doug Oakervee.

Doug Oakervee is sometimes labelled a modern-day Brunel, a driving force behind high-profile, large-scale engineering projects. And his passion for major infrastructure shows no sign of abating as he is now running what will be the UK's largest construction project - Crossrail.

Currently costing £16bn, the project involves connecting railway networks east and west of London via tunnels under the centre of the capital between Paddington, Liverpool Street and Docklands.

But size doesn't intimidate former ICE president Oakervee who is executive chairman of Cross London Rail Links (CLRL), the public sector organisation promoting the project.

He was one of the key forces behind construction of the Hong Kong subway system, and ran the planning and construction of Hong Kong's international airport, which was completed to time and ahead of budget. In fact, Oakervee wants nothing more than to help lead the UK into a new golden age of engineering.

'We are in a unique position to do one of two things: either confirm that we are unable to undertake mega projects, on time and on budget, or dispel the myth once and for all. I am certainly in the last camp, ' he says.

And this requires brave decision making. Success of the Hong Kong airport programme came even though geology inconveniently placed two 180m high mountains on the flight paths close to the runways.

Oakervee simply removed them.

The challenges for Crossrail and Hong Kong airport are of the same scale, he says.

Hong Kong airport had a fixed budget and the opening date was set in stone, timed to coincide with the handover of Hong Kong to the Chinese.

The government has capped the Crossrail budget at £16bn, or £10bn at 2002 prices, and there has been furious debate over whether there should or should not be a station at Woolwich.

Reducing the cost of Crossrail is one Oakervee's biggest priorities. He was brought in last December to get the scheme back on track, as the initial team had failed to impress the then transport secretary, Alistair Darling.

'When I came along, I was quite new to Crossrail, carrying none of the historic baggage with it, and I started to ask some fundamental questions, ' he says.

Targets for cost reductions were undoubtedly set when Oakervee moved to Crossrail but his experiences in Hong Kong have made him far too canny to reveal what they were.

'The agreement with Alaistair Darling was to bring the capital expenditure down. This has to be a world-class railway, but an affordable railway, ' he says.

When asked what he promised, Oakervee smiles and says, 'we had very private negotiations.'

The project had been on the drawing board since the early 1990s. The essential plans had been in place for some 10 years, and many of the assumptions behind the plans had stuck, unchallenged.

Oakervee recruited Chiltern Railways operations director Richard Morris to take charge of delivery, and nd ways to 'value manage' the scheme. He set up a series of workshops, reworking the tunnelling strategy, allowing the number of boring machines to be reduced from 13 to just ve.

'One of the big changes in the tunnelling strategy is to principally take muck out in two places. One is at Westbourne Park where it is transferred to railway wagons and carted away and the other is at the Isle of Dogs, where we then barge everything out, ' he says.

Some material will still be removed by road from the central London station sites, but most spoil will go to each end of the tunnels.

This has eliminated much of the works traffic, a real worry to people in London's East End, and has reduced costs.

Bechtel came in to work on the delivery management. 'I got them to do a top-down estimate, all based on the £16bn outturn cost. The area we found to pay particular attention was systems, including the signalling, ' he said.

Network Rail found a signalling system which could do the job and save cash.

Keeping the project in the headlines at the moment is the debate over a possible station at Woolwich (News last week).

A political row has erupted over the last few weeks as MPs on the Commons Crossrail select committee clashed with the Department for Transport over the need for an additional station at Woolwich.

'Bear in mind that Woolwich has never been part of the scheme. At the moment it seems very difcult to see how you can add £200M onto a scheme when you are trying to cut costs. That is the problem that government have got. But the secretary of state has instructed me to go away and look at it again, together with Greenwich Council, working to see if there is a way it can be done.' Last week's vote on Crossrail was adjourned, but current transport secretary Douglas Alexander did unveil Oakervee's new plan for Woolwich which had managed to cut costs back to £186M.

Greenwich Woolwich MP Nick Raynsford has also suggested that costs be offset with shopping or leisure development, but there are some very tough engineering challenges.

'You have to be deep enough to get under the Thames. Then you have Bazalgette's southern outfall sewer, the North Kent railway line and you have a lot of other utilities and services coming in there, which really handicaps the options you have for alignment, ' he says.

'If there is a solution, and it can be achieved in an affordable way that doesn't impinge on the overall cost of the railway then I'm certain we'll nd it, ' he says.

The project will be subject to super-stringent vibration and environmental controls, suggesting a vibration-limiting slab track, but this is still undecided, and the team still needs to appoint legal, nance and construction directors before the end of the year.

While these nal details are still to be ironed out (the Crossrail Bill is going through Parliament) other areas of the project are marching ahead. The tunnelling alignment for the ChelseaHackney branch is almost secure, and plans exist to allow services to run on some parts of line one before Crossrail's target opening date in 2016.

'It depends on the shape of the funding, ' says Oakervee. The multi-disciplinary consultants are also mostly in place, with Scott Wilson on systems and rolling stock, and Arup/Atkins, Halcrow, Mott MacDonald and Taylor Woodrow taking the contracts thus far. But Oakervee is adamant that the work is won or lost in planning. In this case, 'three organisations are pulling this together: Network Rail, London Underground and ourselves will deliver this railway'.

To do this, 'we must freeze the scope of this project, so that we can build an Emirates-type stadium rather than some of these other projects we are used to around the country with a lack of decision-making and no clarity of scope. If we try to build a world-class railway, we have got to be on time and we have got to be on budget. And that's the aim.

I think industry in this country will come along with us.'

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