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Taking control

Amid a flurry of publicity, Bechtel took control of the JLE in September 1998, ousting long-standing project director Hugh Doherty in the process. Does this mean Doherty failed, asks Antony Oliver.

The majority of the JLE project's 'old hands' agree that project manager Hugh Doherty's achievements and influence on the project were huge. If the civils work can be described as a success then it is as much down to Doherty's management as it is to the men on site.

Here was a man who came to the project with a considerable track record of delivery, straight from the Hong Kong Metro project which was set up on very similar lines.

But he had an almost impossible task in marrying the political demands of his client, the London Underground management, and its paymaster, the Government, with the patent truth that the project simply could not be built in the available time and to the forecast budget.

Bechtel project director Clifford Mumm is adamant that the decision by LUL to bring his firm on board does not mean that the original team failed. On the contrary, he says: 'Getting this far is an amazing achievement.'

His view has always been that on a job of this scale there should be changes in leadership as the project develops so that skills are matched to the tasks that need to be performed.

Doherty's reputation is as a very good political operator. But the sheer scale of the political pressures piled on to his desk began to show as time passed. To condemn particular decisions is perhaps to forget that he had a much bigger agenda to deal with than just getting the railway up and running. The change in Government half way through the project, plus the change in senior management at London Transport all brought their individual axes to bear.

Doherty would no doubt have faced a myriad of questions, and had answers which no one really wanted to hear. But to take his foot off the pedal and admit that the programme could not be achieved would almost certainly have spelt disaster.

'Everybody knew that opening in March 1998 was unrealistic, but it was a date that was hung on to,' says Mumm. But he is quick to defend Doherty's record on the project.

'Hugh did an incredible job - I find it hard to imagine how he got through what he did. But I think what happens when your heart and soul goes into a project, maybe he was holding on to that date thinking 'we've solved every other problem, there's got to be a way to meet this date'.'

For this reason, Mumm insists, it is always vital to change the team part way through the job.

That said, the accusation from contractors that Doherty refused to face the reality of what was happening to the project's programme and budget is perhaps understandable. But it belies the considerable pressures and politicking being played behind the scenes.

Government knew it was responsible for many of JLE's problems by forcing the project up the agenda ahead of its time. But it did not want to admit it and the Treasury did not want to pick up the bill. London Underground knew it was going to need substantial extra funding for the job, money that it did not have. Doherty was always going to be in the hot seat finding the right answers to the right questions and for the right people. The further the project progressed, the more complex these scenarios became.

Kevin McManus, senior supervising engineer on Contracts 101 and 105, worked successfully with Doherty for the duration of his reign but believes it was entirely appropriate that Bechtel, or someone with similar skills, was brought on board when they were. 'It is wrong to suggest that the project was ever off track. Bechtel brought a corporate strength to the fit out and commissioning stage of the project,' he explains. 'You could argue that Doherty was replaced by a multinational company - that surely gives testimony to the success of his efforts rather than being a slight on what he achieved.'

Bechtel certainly has the corporate strategy to deal with situations such as that faced on the JLE. When Mumm's team arrived in September 1998 it had both the tools to do the job and the experience of what had to be done. Add to that a considerable fee incentive and the result is a highly motivated unit.

Mumm's background and reputation for delivering large projects is impressive. Before taking over at JLE he was Bechtel's managing director in charge of special projects in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and South West Asia, which is a pretty impressive CV entry.

Mumm says he is very conscious that he has put the Bechtel name at risk by getting involved and guaranteeing that the project will be open by the millennium. 'People wanted certainty. 'Can you guarantee it will be open by the end of the year?' they asked. We said yes we could and on such a large project if you fall on your face it can have a big impact on your business.'

He points out that senior Bechtel management realised that there was serious risk and so had taken a very keen interest in what he was doing here and made several visits over the last year to study the plans and make sure he was on course. 'And they did not just take my word for it, they got right down there and took a look for themselves.'

But as Bechtel has wholeheartedly backed his decisions and guarantees, Mumm now certainly has the clout to get the job resourced properly.

That said, the most significant effect of bringing Bechtel on to the job was being able to transfer responsibility for the final handing over of the project to the operator away from the influence of those responsible for building it. McManus explains: 'The commissioning is now managed clearly by an external organisation, completely separate from LU and so with no vested interests.'

Bechtel's arrival does not bring with it any quick fixes. But it does boost the project teams and reinforce what was already happening on site.

'We have had to work hard and run fast,' says Mumm, describing how he has managed to catch up the four lost years planning the commissioning. 'Bringing around 50 people on board with experience of this kind of project helped us to grow faster.' In fact, one of the Bechtel team had actually worked on seven similar commissioning projects, he explains.

Most would agree that there is no real mystery to what Bechtel is doing on the JLE but, unlike Doherty, it has the luxury of working without baggage from the past.

And while Bechtel is being rewarded well for its efforts, results will always speak volumes. If the whole line is opened by the millennium, as far as LUL is concerned, it will be money well spent. If not there will be some big questions to answer.

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