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Tue November 19 2019

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Crossrail chiefs were given too much autonomy - MPs report

4 Apr A committee of MPs has expressed its range and frustration that the root causes of the delays and 19% cost overruns of the Crossrail project are still not yet properly known.

Tottenham Court Road station, waiting for trains
Tottenham Court Road station, waiting for trains

Neither the Department for Transport nor Transport for London, nor even Crossrail Ltd, has yet adequately explained “how the programme has been allowed to unravel”, the House of Commons public accounts committee said.

A key lesson, however, seems to be that no one from the ministry kept a proper eye on the job from above – Crossrail Ltd, under chief executive Andrew Wolstenholme, was just left to get on with it, it seems.

Crossrail, a new east-west railway through central London, was supposed to set the standard for delivery of transport programmes, where the skills and knowledge gained from the programme could be exported around the world. But costs have escalated by £2.8bn and delivery dates missed.

New train services were due to start in December 2018 but have been badly delayed. A revised opening schedule has still not been agreed, but the MPs fear it could be 2021 before services on the central section start. Costs have already spiralled from an original budget of £14.8bn to £17.6bn currently – a 19% overrun.

The committee’s report, Crossrail: progress review states: “Crossrail Limited failed to properly report the position of the programme and risks. Key warning signs were missed or ignored, and Parliament and potential new passengers still do not know the root causes of the delays and significant cost overruns. As the programme progressed, the Department, as a joint sponsor of the programme with Transport for London, failed to ensure that the governance arrangements it had put in place were robust.”

It adds: “We are becoming increasingly alarmed at the continual shortcomings our work has highlighted in the department’s project management and oversight of the railways and we will continue to look closely at progress with this programme.”

The report highlights that Crossrail project leadership were given too much authority at the outset, without proper supervision from the Department for Transport or Transport for London

The Department for Transport told the pubic accounts committee that the autonomy it and TfL gave to Crossrail Limited hindered their ability as sponsors to know what was going on and challenge progress during the later stages of the programme.

“This, and Crossrail Limited’s failure to properly report the position of the programme and risks, meant that the Department did not understand the true position of the programme,” the report says.

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It continues: “The Department accepts that its governance arrangements were insufficient to properly capture the risks to the programme as it progressed and that it should have reviewed its governance arrangements several years ago. In the last year, the Department and Transport for London have replaced senior staff responsible for overseeing the programme and added new appointees to the Crossrail Limited Board that have relevant experience.”

In March 2018 they removed Andrew Wolstenholme as chief executive of Crossrail. At the time, everyone thought that he had done a great job and that the decision to move on was his. On his departure, the Institution of Civil Engineers director general Nick Baveystock said: “Andrew Wolstenholme has achieved something amazing during his time as chief executive of Crossrail...  By keeping Crossrail on time and on track he has shown the world that we, as a nation, can still lead the world in infrastructure delivery.” Those words sound a little hollow today in light of what has subsequently emerged.

The MPs warned that the final cost might yet be even higher than £17.6bn, as revised contracts have yet to be agreed. Their report says: “Since December 2018, Crossrail Limited has been re-sequencing the remaining works required for the central section of the railway, untangling a schedule that had become more and more compressed over time because of delays. It has not yet completed this work. Crossrail Limited is looking at completing the railway systems needed to run the trains on the line (such as the signalling systems and operational systems to control parts of the railway including platform doors) before completing the stations, which it acknowledges was not the optimal way of completing the programme. The Department [for Transport] and Crossrail Limited will not fully know how much the programme is now expected to cost until they have agreed a revised schedule to completion and have secured revised contracts with Crossrail Limited’s main contractors.”

Public accounts committee chair Meg Hillier MP said: “Passengers were led to believe they would be able use new Crossrail services through central London from the end of last year. Instead, they have been badly let down by significant delays and cost overruns.

“It is clear that the delivery deadline of December 2018 had been unrealistic for some time. But the Department for Transport, Transport for London and Crossrail Limited continued to put a positive face on the programme long after mounting evidence should have prompted changes.

“Wishful thinking is no basis for spending public money and there remain serious risks to delivering this programme, with a revised schedule and costings for completing the work still to be agreed. Some £2.8bn of extra funding has been provided for Crossrail but even that may not be enough.

“It is unacceptable that Parliament and the public still do not know the root causes of the failures that beset this project. Nor will we accept the Department and Crossrail Limited’s description of these serious problems as ‘systems failures’.

“Accountability in the use of public money is of fundamental importance. The Department should write to us urgently to explain what it, Transport for London and Crossrail Limited are responsible and accountable for on this programme, and set out clearly what consequences there have been for well-rewarded officials whose costly failures are paid for by taxpayers.”

Crossrail: progress review is available at publications.parliament.uk

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