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Crossrail: from civils to systems - CEO Andrew Wolstenholme on preparing for an operational railway

Tunnelling work is now nearly complete on Europe’s largest infrastructure project and to celebrate this NCE is poised to publish its fourth Crossrail major project report. Setting the scene, chief executive Andrew Wolstenholme reflects on the achievements so far and looks ahead to the work still to be done.

“What a different place this is now.” So says Andrew Wolstenholme, chief executive of Crossrail, speaking with his project now nearing the end of its risk-laden tunnelling phase and still firmly aiming for on-time completion and operating within budget.

But Wolstenholme is far from complacent about what is still to be done as the £14.8bn scheme turns from civils project to railway project. “This isn’t for me a celebration,” he states. “It is a recognition.

“I am proud of what we have done and how we have done it, but I clearly understand the risks for the second half, and my role is to make sure that everyone who joins us is able to excel.”

This is important with the project now in transition. Many civils people are leaving the project – notably programme director Andy Mitchell – and railway systems people are joining. That is in itself a significant risk.

And with government now keen to invest in infrastructure, Wolstenholme is ever mindful of the scrutiny that he and his team are under.

“We are really focusing on making this a blueprint, a reference project,” he says.  “Crossrail is a reference project as part of a broader infrastructure investment programme. So we have to pot the ball, but also get position on the black.”

And that means focusing on people and skills. “Everything we do has to benefit the wider community and the wider economic case,” says Wolstenholme. “Yes, the project will benefit the economy in the short term, but in the long term it is about people and skills.

“So we are asking: is it a better industry? Have we left this industry with a better set of skills? Are we able to innovate more? All these things resonate with politicians.”

Crossrail’s efforts to draw innovation out of the supply chain are particularly laudable. “Seldom do we create the environment for that to happen,” notes Wolstenholme. “On something like Crossrail you have to bring new ideas to bear. It’s a no-brainer.”

So Crossrail created an Innovation Forum, with cash to invest in research and development provided through a £25,000 match-funded contribution from the tier one supply chain.

Ideas that received investment range from practical aids, such as an augmented reality app to aid tunnelling and an initiative to tackle hand injuries, through to technology-led ideas such as lightweight concrete.

“We have had radical ideas, tactical ideas, but more importantly we have an organisation that thinks differently and where best practice is shared,” says Wolstenholme. “And that accelerates best practice in the industry.”

Digital and building information modelling (BIM) is the most obvious place that Crossrail has led the way. “We will have easier to maintain assets through our asset models,” says Wolstenholme. “As a client we have worked hard to provide leadership here. We have an ambition beyond delivering today’s technologies. For me, the value in BIM is not as a tool to co-ordinate the delivery phase, but for managing the lifecycle phase.”

And on the people and skills side, Wolstenholme is equally enthused. “We have 300 apprentices now. When the prime minister went to Tottenham Court Road earlier this year he met two of our apprentices who are now fully licenced nozzle men.

“We opened TUCA (the Tunnelling and Underground Construction Academy). More than 6,000 people have passed through it now. Of our 10,000 workforce, around 1,000 had been previously unemployed. [TUCA] is a national asset and needs to be the training establishment through which skills for the Thames Tideway Tunnel, Crossrail 2 and High Speed 2 are developed,” he says.

And it is not just TUCA and apprentices that have benefitted from the project. “We are now taking on our fourth cohort of graduates – and that’s in a client organisation,” Wolstenholme says.

But first and foremost, the project must come in on time and on budget. And that was not a foregone conclusion in the early days of tunnelling. First there was the unfortunate collapse of the spoil disposal system at the Paddington portal. Then the government’s spending watchdog the National Audit Office (NAO) was critical of early progress.

But Wolstenholme is unfazed. “The NAO looked at early curve tunnelling progress. Looking at tunnelling productivity now in 2013/14,” he says. “We did 102m yesterday.”

He explains that a deliberately slower deployment of the tunnel boring machines produced a consistent start that now gives confidence in the process to accelerate: “There are levels of certainty in our tunnelling work that is unusual in this industry. So, absolutely, on the nail, we understand the productivity that we need to complete tunnelling in 2014 and the design we need to deliver the railway systems in 2015.

“I can categorically say this is on time, on budget; and I am very confident of opening within programmed timescales and within the funding envelope,” Wolstenholme adds.

This confidence comes, he says, from knowledge of why other big rail projects have failed in the past: “It is when you reach the halfway point and you are already putting stress on the fit-out and railway systems. Not here. And that’s why we maintain a level of confidence.”

In fact, five years out from opening, Wolstenholme’s attention is already turning to running a railway. “For me, understanding how we are going to integrate it into the rest of the rail network is now key,” he says. “We have proven we can get quality results in the linear infrastructure and we are already de-risking the back end of the programme by bringing together the infrastructure, the people and the processes.”

Wolstenholme and his team have, of course, been well supported by the supply chain, which is building a handy habit of delivery. And he is keen to emphasise the improvement he has seen in performance by all the tier one contractors over the duration of the project.

“When you take on 16 suppliers, it is completely natural that they are going to be in different places. But every single supplier is at the level we expected, and all are on a journey of improvement,” he explains.

And by improvement he means more than just delivery.

“We take it as read that these organisations can deliver technically. Being able to deliver is as a prerequisite of the skills that are being bought as part of the contract,” he says. “But are these organisations able to go beyond that; do they that have the ambition to deliver beyond the day to day?”

What is also important to stress, he notes, is that there is no prize for being the top supplier. “There are no prizes for getting there first,” he says. “What is important is crossing the line together.”

So that means more collaboration, more sharing of best practice; all the simple things urged for decades by people like Latham, Egan, and more recently Wolstenholme himself in his Never Waste a Good Crisis follow-up to Egan. Maybe it is finally happening.

“I am always disappointed that the journey has not happened more quickly, but I am encouraged that it is happening,” he says. And Crossrail’s on time, on budget expectation, following swiftly on from London 2012, bodes well for the future.

“Maybe this is a tipping point, the moment when people believe that UK plc is able to deliver on time, on budget, safely,” he says. “The sceptics are turning quickly and the perception is changing. I intend to enhance that perception and allow the government to continue to invest.”

Crossrail: from civils to systems - preparing for an operational railway

NCE’s fourth Crossrail Major Project report will be published in print and on tablet next month.

The special report will be timed to mark the project moving beyond the halfway point and the change of emphasis from heavy civils towards commissioning and installing the systems that are essential in actually running a railway.

With TBM work now two-thirds complete the report will reflect on the challenge of constructing the main tunnels and underground station caverns and note the achievement of the client, designers, contractors and supply chain to construct this major project beneath the heart of the capital – on time and on budget.

Highlights will include:

The big build reviewed: Interview with programme director Andy Mitchell and central section boss Ailie MacAdam looking at what has been built, the major technical challenges overcome and the innovations brought into play.

The construction phase reviewed in detail: The story told by the Crossrail teams building the project – the client, the designers and the main contractors. Including never seen before images and videos.

Preparing for an operational railway: With the rolling stock contract let and operating concessionaire to be awarded in 2014 it is a big year as Crossrail prepares to become a living railway from May 2015 onwards. An overview of what needs to happen

Operations in detail: Laying the track. Track choices. How will the signalling work? How is it being installed? How will the trains interact with the track? It is a major piece of work. This will get under the skin of it.

The community  and public realm. Integrating the stations into the communities around them, and how it interfaces with London Underground and the existing city activities:  How is a £14.5bn project working alongside a 24/7 business metropolis?

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