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Rob Holden: Getting to the start

Having spent nearly a decade planning and then delivering HS1 − the UK’s first and only high speed railway line − Crossrail’s chief executive Rob Holden is well qualified to lead the £15.9bn project.

Yellow diamond day is flagged bold in Crossrail chief executive Rob Holden’s diary this November. For him and many others on the project the date can’t come soon enough. The day is named after a small, yellow diamond-shaped sticker now stuck to the project programme and its significance is clear.

It is the point at which the scope of work for the £15.9bn project is formally frozen − the day beyond which there will be no new design ideas introduced, no changes of heart over station sizes or platform lengths, no recalculations based upon updated travel predictions and absolute clarity over which trains will be used.

In short it will be the day when the design of Crossrail can really be put into practice and the day that the project’s management will be able to lock down the costs of each element of the project.

“Scope-freeze is hugely important. It helps to give us certainty as to cost.”

Rob Holden

“If people want to change things after that then it either has to be for a critical reason or we’ll do it when the job is complete,” explains Holden. “Scope-freeze is hugely important. It helps to give us certainty as to cost.”

Politically the latter point is vital if the project is to retain the confidence of funders and Holden accepts that a year after Crossrail achieved Royal Assent, the scope is now about to be finally and firmly nailed down.

“We have to change that very, very quickly,” he says. “Fixing the scope is an important task because that narrows down what you are actually due to deliver.”

By comparison, Holden’s last major project − the £6bn High Speed 1 (HS1) − effectively saw its scope frozen at Royal Assent allowing designers to press forward with the design and construction and achieve opening of section one of the first phase just six years later.

Crossrail of course has a slightly longer timeframe to play with. But Holden is nevertheless keen to ensure that his yellow diamond sticker remains in place on the programme in November to create the vital baseline from which to operate.

Massive and prolonged scrutiny

To achieve this will require the co-operation of the project’s many stakeholders. He will have wound up discussions over the call for more stations and over the extent to which passenger numbers may or may not increase as well as discussions on platform widths, platform lengths and numbers of escalators.

All of this means that the next few months look set to be very busy and very political. Not least as the project will also increasingly be asked to justify every penny spent as it states and restates both its deliverability and importance to the UK’s wider economic recovery.

Fundamentally Holden knows that the severe pressure on the public purse means any major publicly-funded project will now face massive and prolonged scrutiny as the government - and whichever one follows after next year’s general election − attempts to balance the books.

“Of course [the Crossrail project] can be stopped. But do I think it will be stopped? No I don’t,” says Holden.

“Of course [the Crossrail project] can be stopped. But do I think it will be stopped? No I don’t.”

Rob Holden

“One of my key tasks is to give the decision makers the confidence that the budget is more than adequate − and I emphasise the word more − and that we will deliver the project in the timescales that have been established.”

He admits that the project is “a long way” from being able to give that confidence but insists that having built up a strong internal team, appointed Crossrail Central (Bechtel, Halcrow and Systra) as project delivery partner and the Transcend consortium (CH2M Hill, Nichols and Aecom) as programme partner, it will soon be in good shape to press forward.

“As we go to the New Year and the prospect of a general election and new masters from whatever political party, we will be able to give them the confidence that they need,” he explains. “It’s being able to answer the questions that new people will inevitably ask and to have the evidence to back up what we say to be able to give them confidence.”

Crossrail route: central section

Crossrail route: central section

That said, Holden is now pleased with the progress that has been made in the five months since he arrived at the project. He is even more pleased to report that others are also now saying the same.

“We have now had external verification from the Treasury and it was very positive,” explains Holden, referring to the recent Treasury Major Projects Review Group report into the project. “They are a lot more comfortable with the progress of the Crossrail project than they were a year ago and that is a great credit to the team that we have started to put together.”

Holden’s initial challenge has been − and will continue to be over the next few months − to reshape the Crossrail team so as to create an organisation capable of designing, constructing and handing over this £15.9bn project. He accepts that right now, many of the right skills are either still missing or have only just been found.

Gearing up

The sponsors want the project delivered for the least cost and at the required quality and scope. Holden is clear that the design phase is where the bulk of the big savings will be achieved. It is, he says, when you “stop designers designing for design’s sake rather than the needs of the project”.

The reality is that no matter how effective the past organisation was in progressing the planning and achieving Royal Assent, the needs of the project going forward to meet this goal are substantially different and so will require very different skills and personalities.

“The Crossrail organisation had a particular function leading up to Royal Assent. After that it had to throw the balls up into the air to take the project forward,” he explains. “As I arrived, the project had not moved fast enough from what it was to what it needed to be and it wasn’t fully geared up for the next eight years through to 2017. But this situation is now changing.”

“As I arrived, the project had not moved fast enough from what it was to what it needed to be and it wasn’t fully geared up for the next eight years through to 2017. But this situation is now changing.”

Rob Holden

Since joining Crossrail from London and Continental Railways in April, Holden has been quite vocal about the need to reform the project’s governance. With so many different stakeholders having an interest in the project, he is keen to rationalise the number of parties looking over his shoulder ahead of each decision. The challenge of bringing all parties together is stark even when you just consider the main sponsors.

Crossrail is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Transport for London (TfL) but funding for the Crossrail project also comes from the Department for Transport (DfT) and Network Rail (NR). While TfL’s agenda is understandably focused on making Crossrail work for the Capital, the DfT and NR are equally logically concerned about the project’s ability to serve and improve connections on the wider national rail network.

These are quite fundamental differences of emphasis and, as the scope of the project is being finalised, have to be reconciled. Holden is pleased to report that day by day, communication is improving. “[The sponsors] have put a lot of effort in over the last six months into working effectively. Clearly it makes it easier for us to work with joined up sponsors.”

Key to improved communication is the newly-formed joint sponsor board, which has been created with two members from each sponsor plus Partnerships UK chief executive James Stewart. This provides an opportunity for them to discuss issues, seek information from the project and agree a way forward.

Of course the Treasury, TfL and DfT are just a few of the stakeholders to whom Holden must report. In addition he has many more to either answer to or satisfy including the London mayor’s office, local authority planning departments, Network Rail, Canary Wharf, Berkeley Homes, London Underground and Docklands Light Railway to name but a few.

Reaching decisions

By contrast, when he was running HS1 Holden had the benefit of being the client and so the sole decision maker. Decisions came swiftly on the basis of information available and what was best for the project. On Crossrail reaching the same decisions is more complex. “Clearly there are a lot of lessons from [HS1] which are relevant and if we ignore them Crossrail will suffer.

But we also have to recognise that this project is different from HS1 in terms of scale and complexity,” says Holden. “There are different governance arrangements and we have to recognise that. We have to get the right balance − getting people to understand the issues and then to take them with us.”

In particular, the fact that Crossrail is almost entirely publicly-funded brings with it challenges − not least around the constant political and media scrutiny which is applied to every area.

“With HS1 we were able to keep out of the media until we had something to brag about and that meant we could really focus on the project. There is a risk of media attention distracting you from what you do. ”

Rob Holden

“With HS1 we were able to keep out of the media until we had something to brag about and that meant we could really focus on the project,” he explains. “I was criticised for not getting the project a higher media profile but there is a risk of media attention distracting you from what you do on a day a to day basis. That is not good for the project.”

Asked about the much-discussed-in-the-media delays in appointing Crossrail Central as project delivery partner, Holden smiles and simply explains that the TfL board needed time to put some questions to the incoming management team about this major appointment.

“I was not involved in the evaluation − I was simply asked if I had any problems with the appointment,” he explains. “I am focused on Crossrail and what this project needs. My position with Bechtel is that they have a first class reputation for delivering big complex projects.”

Holden, Canary Wharf Group’s transport advisor Jim Berry (left) and transport mini

Holden (right) watches as Canary Wharf Group’s transport advisor Jim Berry (left) and transport minister Sadiq Khan study the Crossrail route

There is no question that Holden is pleased to have the Bechtel “A-team” on board led by Cliff Mumm with former HS1 project manager Ailie MacAdam and former implementation director of the Network Rail/Bechtel West Coast Route Modernisation Bill Tucker as his joint number twos. Across the whole team Holden is taking time to ensure that he not only has the best people on board but also the best chemistry within the teams.

“Big complex projects are delivered by good people working together,” he explains. “I want people to work with us who believe that they can make a genuine contribution to the success of the project. I don’t want people running around with their own agendas.”

Finding opportunities

He remains “vehemently” behind the concept of partnering and believes that it is the only way to deliver a major project like Crossrail − certainly the only way that he could deliver Crossrail.

“Lowest price does not necessarily mean that you have got best value for money,” he says. “I think competition is right to a degree but when awarding a contract, price is one element − but it is not necessarily the most important element.”

Holden also points out that the ongoing downturn does not help the project − although falling volumes of work should increase competition, without a finalised design it is very risky to start pre-ordering materials or equipment.

“Yes there are opportunities from placing orders now provided that you know what you want to buy,” he says. “But if your design is not sufficiently far advanced then you are just exchanging one risk for another.”

And the one skill that Holden accepts that neither he nor any one will ever have is 20:20 hindsight. Between now and 2017 Holden’s success will be measured on the quality of his judgement and the strength of his daily decision making.

However, after five very intense first months at Crossrail Holden says he is just able to move into the phase where he can sit back slightly and start to look at the bigger picture and consider the various scenarios and options that will be required to bring the project in on time and to budget. “I sleep comfortably because I don’t kid myself. If we are not going to do something I tell people,” he says. “We need to be on top of problems as they emerge, not denying that they exist.”

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