We all know what went wrong with the modernisation of the Great Western Main Line: the electrification.
It has gone billions of pounds over budget, from a starting point of £874M up to an eye-watering £2.8bn for the electrification of track between Maidenhead and Cardiff. The £1.4bn element between Maidenhead and London Paddington was funded under Crossrail.
Specification was unclear, planning was poor and design was rushed, resulting in an overload of bespoke design, with poor sequencing of works. For example, designers started deciding what type of gantry masts should be installed at each location two years before the list of catenary components was available, resulting in many unnecessary design revisions.
Mark carne, sept ’13 crop
Significant parts of the original scheme have been scrapped: electrification will now no longer go into the centre of Bath or Bristol and will not go from Cardiff to Swansea.
And it is late – 18 to 36 month minimum delays to various parts of route compared to Network Rail’s 2014 plan, according to a report published last year by spending watchdog the National Audit Office. Some of this has been put down by industry insiders to the underperformance of the track operator’s factory train, the £40M High Output Plant System (HOPS).
The troubles have been publicly scrutinised and documented, and ultimately were a catalyst for an overhaul of Network Rail’s delivery plans for Control Period 5 (CP5) in the form of a review and re-plan by its chairman Sir Peter Hendy in 2015.
But the story of the Great Western Main Line upgrade is a tale of two halves. After getting off to a disastrous start, there was a watershed moment following the Hendy review and since then project delivery and productivity has improved.
Timescales and budgets, heavily revised from the original scheme, are being met.
Now Network Rail is, tentatively, starting to celebrate some of the project’s successes. And there are some.
The electrification débâcle has overshadowed some nifty engineering of the Stockley flyover at Heathrow junction, removing the conflict between main line and Heathrow trains. A new dive-under at Acton allows faster passenger trains to pass under slower freight traffic. These structures were built for Crossrail, but were all part of the Great Western upgrade.
Reading station has been transformed from a dull rail bottleneck into an architecturally pleasing hub which keeps the 1,000 trains which use it each day moving through its five new platforms. Works included a new flyover, new dive-under lines and a new depot.
Added to this Paddington station has a huge new roof, as well as new and remodelled tracks on the station’s approach.
And then there is the finished electrification work itself. More than 7,000 masts of galvanised steel, 2,800 booms and cables individually hung. The process has required alteration or replacement of 160 bridges. The statistics alone reveal the enormity of the job.
The route to Maidenhead has already been electrified, and the plans are to have the whole route from London to Cardiff via Bristol Parkway electrified by 2019. In October, the first of the £5.7bn fleet of intercity express bi-mode trains, which can run on diesel and electricity, started operating on the Great Western rail network.
Reconstruction of broad town road bridge in royal wootton bassett crop
Of course it would be misleading to say that it has all been plain sailing over the past couple of years, but Network Rail has taken a project in deep trouble and performed a turnaround.
So from a project management point of view, how did it do it?
For Network Rail chief executive Mark Carne, there were several elements that had be tackled. One was to give workers pride in their job.
“You have to make people feel part of what they are doing. At that point in time , they were getting battered around the head, but we said: ‘put your head above the parapet, what you are doing matters to lives,’” he says.
Change, Carne says, had to come from the top down.
“There was a really critical moment in 2015 where we brought all the chief executives of the supply chain together and said ‘how are we going to work together to make this project a success, because we all depend on each other to make it work’.
“There were lots of different contracts with different contractors. We tried to create an environment where everyone mutually depended on each other,” he says.
“It was led from the top.”
One of the major problems of the electrification scheme was that it had too much bespoke design, which had been done quickly. “We did way too much bespoke,” admits Carne.
“Timescales were such that we had no choice other than to rush into construction. Where, if we had a longer time up front, we would have taken a standardised system.”
One of the main priorities from the drive to get the supply chain to work as a team was to cut down the number of designs.
Consultants were consequently brought in to examine the pinch points and how to speed things up – and speeding things up was also crucial for the programme, says Graeme Tandy, who is Network Rail’s area director forr the Greater West Programme.
Tandy was brought into the project in 2015 and says his first task was to set up a robust, baseline delivery plan. “That was one of the key things we recognised two years ago, we needed to be stronger in construction management: we had all the risk.”
He added: “We had a baseline plan and then you’ve got to have a construction plan that backs it up. Not just overhead line electrification (OLE), but elements such as bridges and platforms. We now track against it and every week ask: ‘are we achieving what the business plan says we should achieve?’”
However, Tandy says there was no golden bullet to solve the problems, other than just trying to make continuous improvement.
“You solve the slowest thing and you solve the next slowest thing and keep going and you hit the capacity of something such as how many machines you get on the track.”
At Reading the team had 50 machines. But physically getting the machines on to the track was an issue. So the contractors built more ramps. They also started to make sure the machines were set out in order of the piece of work they were doing – it sounds obvious but this was not consistently happening before.
“There was the whole concept of being construction ready, material supply, design ready, consents in place. A HOPS train is planned seven weeks in advance. So where it is going needs to be ready to be built,” he said.
Staff were also transferred further down the line when their immediate work on a section was complete, thereby keeping skills on the project. “There was a cascade of people from east to west so we kept the learning going,” says Tandy.
All this was helped by 100 more staff and more money, but the team also tried to raise morale.
“It did feel a bit like a project that was a little bit broken. We needed a few successes,” says Tandy.
The team decided to concentrate on getting the Reading to Didcot test track delivered.
“It wasn’t built to the same specification as the main line, but it still proved we could we could run 25.6km of track with an overhead line. That started to build confidence within senior management. One of the problems was people believing it could be done.”
So Network Rail gradually turned things around and slowed spiralling costs by taking on bite-sized chunks work and solving what problems it could. “When you have got a programme that works, your cost control is considerably better and easier – we’re delivering the stuff we said we would deliver. The cost control is linked to getting the programme robust,” says Tandy.
The legacy of the Great Western modernisation has been far reaching, from an overhaul of Network Rail’s CP5 plans to contributing to a cooling of government policy on electrification.
But the legacy is also passengers enjoying greener, faster, more frequent, trains where they might actually get a seat.