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Comment | Industry must rise again after Crossrail debacle

Mark Hansford

This month’s New Civil Engineer was intended to be future looking as we explore innovations in our Future of Tunnelling special.

We are still doing that. But we also find ourselves dedicating many column inches to tunnelling past, as we learned this month the full scale of the delays still afflicting Crossrail and the “many, many thousands of hours” of work still needed to complete the civil engineering.

The revelations emerged from the project’s latest boss Mark Wild – the third man in a year to take charge of the former “Fifteen billion pound railway”, as it was called the BBC documentary of the same name. Wild pulled no punches in his evidence to London Assembly’s transport committee as he revealed the scale of work still to be done – up to three years’ worth in fact – and the issues he is having with the supply chain.

Subsequent investigations by New Civil Engineer, revealed in this month’s magazine, show how severe these are, with client Crossrail Limited forced into negotiating new lump sum contracts with key contractors to incentivise them to get the work done.

Something has clearly gone very badly wrong on the project. Wild’s view, that the “enormity and complexity of Crossrail in all manners… was not fully understood” by senior project executives and representatives, is hugely perturbing.

Yet in a day of extraordinary statements, the most extraordinary came not from Wild but the man sat next to him, fellow project newbie and incoming chairman Tony Meggs.

Meggs’ take on the Crossrail débâcle was this: “Projects of this scale rarely go to time or budget. It is not an excuse, merely fact.”

Tottenham court road 308567 june 2018

Tottenham court road 308567 june 2018

Crossrail: Extraordinary statements

So that’s alright then. Despite hearing from Wild that the project is now running up to three years’ late and £2.5bn over budget, many countries worldwide would be satisfied with that, he told the committee.

Meggs has said this before, but it remains an extraordinary statement, made all the more so by the fact the he was previously chief executive of the Infrastructure & Projects Authority (IPA). This is the Treasury’s quango set up to help government departments in bring major projects in on time and on budget. It clearly has work to do.

It is also extraordinary because it is blatantly not fact. Because

Europe’s two most recent and fast-paced high speed rail projects: Bordeaux-Tours and Montpelier-Nîmes opened on time and on budget. We have written about both repeatedly in New Civil Engineer, so Meggs did not have to look far for his research.

He could also have looked closer to home where projects such as the London 2012 Olympics, London’s Lee Tunnel, the M25 upgrade and Heathrow’s Terminal 5 all immediately jump out as complex major projects that were delivered on time and on budget.

Crucially, just down the M4/M5 corridor, we report this month that project leaders on Britain’s current mega-project, Hinkley Point C, are straining every sinew to explore and exploit every innovation they can   to ensure that this hugely sensitive project is delivered well.

So such a sweeping statement from Meggs is not only not fact, it does our industry a massive disservice.

Last month we reported how Meggs’ former IPA colleague, IPA director of infrastructure delivery Stephen Dance, felt that problems with Crossrail were dangerously close to undermining government confidence about future major projects. He was, of course, referring to High Speed 2 (HS2) whose acute cost pressures are well known.

Wild’s latest revelations will have done nothing but further undermine that confidence. It would be a brave chancellor and transport secretary to sign off on HS2 main civils contractors right now; here, in February 2019, on the eve of Brexit and a major Spending Review. Clearly it is now a big ask of our industry but a crucial one to help restore some of that confidence.

  • Mark Hansford is New Civil Engineer’s editor

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