When Bechtel took over project management of the Jubilee Line Extension in September 1998 it would have been easy to have taken this switch as proof that London Underground had finally run out of patience with long standing project manager Hugh Doherty and his team.
Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott certainly had. As far as he was concerned, missing the revised September 1998 opening date was one broken promise too many. The original 'cast in stone' opening date of 28 March 1998 had already bitten the dust and there was no real sign that the job was over the final hurdles.
But as has so often been the case with the JLE, there was perhaps a bigger political agenda on the table. The Government needed to have the Tube line up and running by the millennium to justify and underpin its huge commitment to the Greenwich Dome. Shifting Doherty was the headline, but giving the go ahead to spend what was necessary to get it done was the result that really mattered.
As London Transport chief executive Denis Tunnicliffe said at the time: 'The decision to bring in Bechtel was taken in the light of the absolute necessity to deliver the JLE in time for the Millennium Experience.'
In hindsight the general conclusion is that the original budget and timescale were too optimistic and even the experienced Doherty and his team would always have been unable to meet them.
That deadline, of course, has now gone. And there was no question that Bechtel's Clifford Mumm and his team are on a serious promise for bringing the JLE in before the champagne corks start popping on New Year's Eve. Informed speculation puts their reward fee at somewhere between £10M and £20M, which, as any consultant or project manager will verify, is not a bad return.
That said, the up to 50-strong team imported from the US and around the world had a daunting task. Costs had rocketed from the original £1.9bn budget to £2.75bn when they came on board and the original 53 month programme had slipped to 74 months. Costs since have continued to rise steadily and now stand at around the £3.3bn mark.
So would Bechtel have brought the project in on time and to budget if it had been in charge from the start? Mumm is cautious about the knowledge of hindsight.
'I like to think that as we do this kind of thing day in day out, compared to an organisation like LUL which does this once in a lifetime, that we would have made fewer mistakes,' he says. 'By the time LUL gets to do another project of this size, probably the people that learnt the lessons will have retired. With a company like ours they just go on to the next one and apply the lessons.'
He identifies the design phase as being a critical point in the JLE's problems. 'As the design deficiencies became known the project and the costs started to spiral. The old rule is that 80% of the cost of a project is affected by the design phase. If time had allowed we would have got a better design.'
Bechtel's team knew the JLE situation well. It had already carried out a project assessment at Prescott's behest and as a result had Doherty reporting progress to then Transport Minister Glenda Jackson on a twice monthly basis. Industrial unrest mainly among the electricians coupled with the sheer scale of work to be completed and commissioned meant drastic action was inevitable.
As one contractor pointed out: 'In my experience, Bechtel does not just carry out project assessments. It either takes over the project or does not get involved at all. It was clear from the moment they got involved that a change was on its way.'
When he arrived on the project Mumm says he soon realised that there were very good people, working very hard. He is also adamant that it was not a question of simply shipping in people from the US. 'The first thing I had to do was identify who the ultimate client was.' This he describes as focusing on defining what the end user's requirements were and getting the team all working towards the same goal.
'The old March 1998 date had been held for a long time and had lost credibility. The group didn't really know where they were heading - there was confusion,' he explains. 'So we reorganised but we didn't fire anybody - some people left, but we didn't drive them out.'
Next was to address the opening date. Out went the latest promise of spring 1999 and in its place was a phased opening which would see the new line opening in three steps, starting with the Stratford to North Greenwich by spring 1999, then North Greenwich to Waterloo by late summer. The final connection via Waterloo and Westminster to Green Park was to be complete by the end of the year.
Getting the first section of the JLE open between Stratford and North Greenwich was vital, not so much in terms of getting a vital route open, but simply to give the operator something real to work with. 'Who really knows what difficulties we were going to find,' says Mumm. 'If you bring the public in a controlled way you are able to see what they do. In that period after opening North Greenwich to Stratford we made immense leaps from an operational standpoint.'
Mumm also had to finally get to grips with the troubled moving block signalling system. Hopes that this would be designed, tested, commissioned and installed in time for the opening had always been optimistic but by the start of 1998 it was clear that Westinghouse, the system's designer, would not be able to deliver.
At that time Doherty admitted that London Underground's desire to utilise this revolutionary system had been a massive millstone around his neck. 'There was a substantial amount of development work associated with the product,' he said. 'The real solution would have been to rely on known technology and bring in the moving block technology when it was ready.'
Mumm is clear that LUL's decision to design a new signalling system for the JLE was risky. 'The old rule for any project is to have 90% known and 10% new technology. If you violate that ratio then every time you will get into trouble,' he says. 'This project did try to introduce a huge amount of new technology, all for the right reasons, but it has made it twice as hard to do.'
Westinghouse had a tough job and has by no means disappeared with its tail between its legs. 'It still has a contractual obligation and we are in discussion about how to go forward,' says Mumm. 'But I have backed out now - it is not part of what I am being paid to achieve here.'
However, for many on the JLE, hindsight shows that the project was doomed to being late and over budget right from the start. It was born out of political manoeuvring, suffered throughout from political and budgetary pressures and was finally ushered into service after yet more high level political chest-beating.
The reality is that if it had not been for the £400M sweetener offered by Canary Wharf's owner Olympia & York, it would never have risen up the pecking order ahead of the likes of CrossRail and the Chelsea-Hackney link. A period of intense design got the project out to tender in 1992, just in time for O&Y to go broke in the early 1990's property crash. Contracts which had already been let had to be put on ice for 18 months while Canary Wharf's new owner, a consortium of banks, discussed a deal with Government. Contractors were left in limbo, not knowing how long they would be kept waiting to start work.
Mike Jenkins, senior supervising engineer at Westminster station, has been with the project since 1992 and is convinced that the project never really recovered from this bad start. 'We were always going to struggle because of the funding problems,' he says. 'The contractors were locked in for a very long time but given very little time for mobilisation. They were on the back foot from day one.'
Jenkins is also critical in hindsight of the client's reluctance to take on risk in the contract. 'We developed an environment where the contractor felt squeezed from the start,' he says. 'The contractor always felt vulnerable to risk. To be successful you really have to have shared goals.'
Jenkins also believes that if the project was to hit its goals a much greater emphasis should have been placed on earlier finalising of design.
Many contractors share this view. Perhaps one of the oldest and wisest is former Balfour Beatty-Amec joint venture project director Colin Mackenzie who ran the massive and highly complex Contract 102 at Waterloo and Westminster. 'This job was not fully designed by any stretch of the imagination when we started,' he explains. 'The problem was that JLE never really recognised the shear scale of the changes and the implications on the programme.'
Mackenzie believes that this problem is rooted in the project management teams' early failure to grip the job hard enough. The project management set up was conceived to follow the model established on the Hong Kong Metro and relied on having a strong client team to avoid using consultants as client representative.
Certainly it was true that the senior management team at the start had impressive credentials. In addition to Doherty, contracts manager Jo Sutton, engineer David Sharpe, plus two construction managers and the project E&M manager were ex-Hong Kong and very familiar with this kind of management. 'It worked there, it will work here,' was the belief.
But Mackenzie's view is that the project failed to maintain this high level of expertise. With all design and construction procured by competitive tender and the majority of risk left with the contractor, he is convinced that without the strongest possible management team JLE was doomed to fail.
'I am convinced that the project would have been different had Bechtel been here from the start,' explains Mackenzie. 'JLE built a project team 'off the street' and never really had the necessary depth of experience. There were of course many very talented individuals but everyone was employed on a temporary basis which inevitably gave a different level of commitment.'
But this point is disputed by senior supervising engineer Kevin McManus who has been with the project since 1993. He is adamant the overall strength and leadership of the management team was very high, employing some of the best people in the business to do a very complex job.
'However design procurement using a lump sum basis for design and construction proved not to be as cost effective,' he admits. 'The designers did not have sufficient time to finalise designs.'
But he insists that project procurement choices were made for many positive reasons leading to varied success. The wide range of tunnelling machines and linings used on the job for instance, he says, was only introduced because the contractors were offered the opportunity to refine the designs and come up with better alternatives.
McManus is clear that to build the job in 53 months for the original £1.9bn budget must be seen as optimistic. He speculates: 'Would the project have ever been built if the true cost had been known?
However, he is also clear that everybody, both the JLEP and the contractors, went into the job in 1993 with the aim and intention of meeting their commitments. 'Sticking to the targets on a job like this is very important as once an objective gets beyond grasp it is very difficult to regain focus.'
It is this point that Doherty hung on to when he was in charge and up against it. Whether it was the 28 March 1998, September 1998 or spring 1999, his job was always to try to stick to that date for as long as possible to avoid losing momentum on the project.
If he was accused of failing to face reality and hanging on to dates out of hope rather than expectation it would be to ignore the very real pressures and often unrealistic demands made by those above him.
The luxury, in many respects afforded to Bechtel under its current arrangement is that it has been given the mandate and the funding to get on and do the job free from politicking - a luxury that, arguably, Doherty rarely had.