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Holden's departure comes as Crossrail enters a new phase

As Crossrail chairman Terry Morgan says this week, losing chief executive Rob Holden is not what the project wants right now.

And the true reasons behind Holden’s sudden and unexpected decision to step down last week will no doubt be the subject of much industry speculation for some time to come. Holden leaves this summer.

There is, of course, much evidence to support the notion that the decision is the result of an on-going difficult relationship between Holden and Crossrail’s multi-headed project governance structure. Not least given that he has spoken publicly about the difficulties and his desire to simplify his own reporting lines and responsibilities.

Balancing the often conflicting needs and objectives of sponsors Transport for London and the Department for Transport plus those of the London mayor and the Treasury cannot have been straightforward. And behind this tier lies perhaps another dozen key stakeholders, each also commanding a voice at the decision table.

Yet after nearly two years in the job, Holden had, by all accounts, risen to the challenge. He had guided these tricky bedfellows through a global economic downturn and major value management process; a General Election and change of government; and a Comprehensive Spending Review.

He has shaved £1bn off the outturn cost and, pushed through a complex and difficult procurement process to get the first £1.25bn of tunnelling contracts into the market.

“Balancing the often conflicting needs and objectives of sponsors Transport for London and the Department for Transport plus those of the London mayor and the Treasury cannot have been straightforward”

Significantly, Holden has achieved this without surrendering project scope despite fears to the contrary. In return he has won the project an extra year to deliver.

Clearly the governance tensions had not stopped him running the project on his own terms. Bearing in mind that once through the Treasury’s Review Period 4 audit in March, Holden will, until his departure, be accountable for delivery and have less need to refer to sponsors for decision approval, one could easily argue that this particular pendulum was starting to swing his way.

In many ways the timing of his departure could actually work well for the project. Crossrail is moving rapidly from its planning phase into construction and over the next few months will see a major revamp of its structure and staffing as a consequence.

As the highly complex contracts are let and construction work begins, the project will have to be in shape to ensure that the army of international contractors delivers to its programme and cost promises.

As Holden is clearly aware, this is a mammoth seven year task and will require total commitment and the right people from top to bottom.

It is a mammoth task but also a very exciting and rewarding one for every engineer involved. I suspect there will be no shortage of willing candidates to fill Holden’s chief executive boots.

  • Antony Oliver is NCE’s editor

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