Crossrail: The Dangerous Sound of Silence


We have been critical of the wall of silence that has enveloped Crossrail. In a welcome contrast, at the December 2018 meeting of the Programmes and Investment Committee, the public were treated to a full, frank and open presentation from Mark Wild, the new Chief Executive at Crossrail, about the current situation, the problems that lie ahead and the factors that will determine when Crossrail will open.

In this, the first of two articles, we look at what led to Crossrail getting into a state where the management and oversight of the project was, to put it politely, ‘lacking’. In a second article, which will be based on Mark Wild’s comments and other material originating from him, we will look at the steps being taken to remedy this and to get the project under proper management control once more.

The Soviet-style News Blackout

Construction projects are notorious for being late and over-budget, but equally benefits are generally understated. This means that a retrospective assessment in the years after completion will often show that even late and over-budget projects are hugely beneficial. What is unexpected with Crossrail is that, in a very short space of time, the project became extremely delayed and massively over-budget without any single obvious reason to explain why this should be so.

Unusually, one can now almost pinpoint the moment when Crossrail started on a path to future issues – issues which subsequently have resulted in the construction being neither on time nor on budget. The defining moment that initiated major problems in the management of Crossrail was a transformer explosion at Pudding Mill Lane on November 11 2017. It was not, however, the explosion itself that did the real long-term damage. It was how Crossrail handled the news about it, and how it reacted to this fairly catastrophic event.

Everything is rosy (green)

Whilst Crossrail had previously encountered problems prior the explosion happening, they were not generally publicised and did not appear to be that serious. They were the sort of problems you would expect during the construction of a new railway and when viewed individually they appeared to have a very high chance of being recoverable without major risk. Given the love of the Red, Amber, Green (RAG) traffic light reporting system, it could have almost have literally been said that all systems were go. The Crossrail website was full of positive stories and details of progress made. Negative stories such as early disquiet over some of the compulsory acquisitions or, later on, the death of a construction worker were generally not mentioned.

The explosion changed everything – or at least ought to have changed everything.

There has been an explosion. Shhh!

After the explosion, Crossrail initially failed to put much in the public domain. It was weeks before details came to light and even then it was in a roundabout way. This is usually the worst thing to do in such circumstances as it leads to wild speculation. More than this, as one of our commentariat suggested, Crossrail – and TfL by abstraction – missed a golden opportunity to play a ‘get out of jail free’ card. Publicise the delays, emphasise how completely unexpected the problem was and how it was (genuinely) down to one of their suppliers, and suggest that because of this the opening date was now in doubt. This didn’t happen, and a ‘GTR-Thameslink timetable’ style narrative became embedded, stating that this made the opening date more challenging but they were sure it could still be achieved.

The Mayor does himself no favours

Worse still, the Mayor, who had good reason to be deeply concerned by all this, cut short public discussion on the subject of Crossrail at a TfL board meeting late in January 2018. There were almost certainly issues that rightly and properly were not to be discussed in public. It was also probably inconvenient to have to separate the parts that were for public consumption from those that were not. Judging by his comments made at the time, the Mayor appeared to be concerned that a board member would inadvertently mention something in open session that quite rightly was not yet (or ever) to become public knowledge.

Regardless of the intentions behind it, what the Mayor did, if not unlawful under 1972 Local Government Act, was certainly not in the spirit of it. The relevant part of the act was brought in to ensure that discussions did not take place ‘behind closed doors’ unless there was a valid reason to do so. Avoiding bad publicity or fearing that someone might say something they should not would almost certainly not be accepted as valid reasons.

In the end the Mayor gained no favours. Had the exact nature and extent of the problems been publicised, experienced experts in the field would no doubt have been expressing great concern in public that, even then, the planned opening date stood very little chance of being met. In effect, the Mayor robbed himself of the ‘sanity checking’ that he has since claimed he never had. The sooner the issues had been flagged and appreciated, the less damaging in terms of cost and reputation it would have been to overshoot it.

No news is good news?

After January, the problem and the consequences arising from it were still being played down in TfL public sessions, and largely ignored on the Crossrail website. Incredibly, the Crossrail Quarterly Update for February 2018 manages not to mention the explosion at all, despite it being the most significant occurrence on Crossrail in the previous three months at that point. The update turned out to be the penultimate one to be issued.

We now know what this reflected. Instead of coming clean, the Crossrail Board seemed wedded to describing the situation to the Mayor (and beyond) as ‘extremely challenging’. In another situation reminiscent of the GTR Thameslink situation, it was almost as if no-one wanted to be the person who said that the opening date could not be met – even though one wonders now if individually everyone was thinking it. As recounted in Crossrail: Breaking down the Crisis the facts were laid pretty bare and it is hard to understand why, from late July 2018, neither the Crossrail board nor the Mayor thought that they ought to be planning on the basis that Crossrail wouldn’t open in December 2018.

What remains puzzling is what purpose was achieved by not facing up to the difficulty of meeting the opening deadline. If an outsider were present and felt able to speak their mind, they must have concluded that the odds of meeting the December 2018 target were very low. So low in fact that it would have been far better to announce to the world that the deadline was unlikely to be met, and that contingency planning should be made for an opening sometime in 2019.

Creeping increased risk

In such a situation it is hard to get to the truth but in LR towers there is a strong consensus as to the two main factors we think led to the ‘press on regardless’ attitude.

One problem is ‘silo mentality’, where departments do not fully understand how their problems affect others and vice versa. So, for example, construction delays at stations lead to delays in commissioning them. But there is contingency built into the programme and everyone relies on some of that to remain on schedule. Unfortunately, there is only so much contingency to be had – something that needs to be fully appreciated across all work streams, not just individually.

It seems apparent that this appreciation was missing from the project. Stations fell behind schedule, but this was not seen as a critical issue by those completing construction work – because they were unable to fully appreciate that system testing couldn’t really commence effectively until they have finished their job first. There was contingency built into the timetable (or was before the explosion), which they were aware of and already ‘eating’. Unfortunately system testing was also more problematic than originally thought, but the same confidence in the availability of contingency existed there. Those involved in systems testing hadn’t fully factored in delays that would be caused by delayed construction completion. And so it continued. It was ‘green lights’ individually all round, but the reality was very different.

Another problem, which is easy not to understand as it is not intuitive, is the cumulative worsening risk on a project of this size. We do not have any real figures here, so we will have to consider a hypothetical situation – a thought experiment if you like.

The thought experiment

Prior to the explosion there was clearly a risk of delay and going over-budget. Let’s assume that this was small – say 5% in each critical area. So there was a small risk that the stations wouldn’t be ready, a small risk that the trains wouldn’t be ready, a small risk that the power wouldn’t be ready, a small risk the signalling wouldn’t be ready and a small risk that the systems testing wouldn’t be finished in time. On top of that were unknowns which we will lump together. For example, in the past few years a number of construction firms have gone bust and others have been sources of concern.

Individually, this looked like a positive situation – six areas with a 95% chance of being ready. But that’s not how probability actually works. In fact cumulatively, in our scenario, the chances all of those six areas being ready on time roughly works out at 73%.

Now let us assume that because of the delay caused by the explosion the chances of every one of these areas not being met increased to 10% from 5%. This doesn’t seem too bad. Intuitively one might think of it as a 5% worsening. But the reality is that overall this would have taken the project from a 73% likelihood of succeeding to a 53% chance of succeeding – not much better odds than evens. Worse, if every one of those items had actually dropped to 85% – still a seemingly positive figure – then this would have dropped the project to a 37% chance of total success with just six discrete areas of concern. Not looking good.

Of course, our thought experiment uses hypothetical numbers. It is deliberately simplistic and designed more to illustrate a point. In reality, one looks at critical paths and how delays affect those paths but in a complex situation with so much happening (or not happening – that was the problem), it would have been hard to keep up with any critical path analysis. And that was assuming everyone involved had up-to-date facts. Some Network Rail over-running engineering works in previous years have shown how portions of the work supposedly done by contractors turns out not to be complete (or even started) when it comes to sign-off prior to handing back the railway.

What we knew then, what we know now

The above risk with cumulative worsening looks bad but in reality we have good reason to believe that it was actually much worse. And that is before we consider the concept of ‘optimism bias’ when applied to scheduling. The figures Crossrail were probably using (if indeed they were doing any such analysis) were based on what was known at the outset. To be fair to Crossrail, they had not shied away from talking about risky areas of the project and the initial planning sought to minimise this risk. This particularly applies to signalling which was recognised early on as an area with potential problems.

The problem then is that you have to update your risk assessment in the light of experience. You can’t just say you thought there might be a problem in that area and so you have factored that in. If you know that there is a problem you need to factor in the fact that you know there is definitely a problem and not the fact that you anticipated there might be a problem.

We do not know what the Crossrail board knew and when it knew it, but it is hard not to believe they weren’t aware of all the things happening around them. And the news from the UK and elsewhere was not good.

The Class 345 trains were still showing up new problems – remember delays with the first trains caused stage 1 to be late and initially only having one train in public service (contrary to the original plan). The ‘Beast from the East’ in April 2018 also highlighted how the trains’ windscreen wipers couldn’t cope with the cold conditions. Those responsible for the trains must also have been aware of major issues with the Class 710 train destined for the Gospel Oak to Barking line (a topic we will need to write about as well), a train outwardly very similar to the Class 345 on Crossrail.

Signalling issues – as always

The problems with signalling in the Heathrow tunnels must have caused concern over signalling issues later on in the project – or certainly should have done. The conditions were different, certainly, but in both cases you have propagating waves in tunnels. In Hong Kong, MTR (the parent group of the operating company MTR Crossrail) were encountering considerable problems and delays installing a very similar Siemens signalling system on the Central Link North – South Corridor. Even the communications problems with the Sub-Surface Railway (SSR) resignalling delayed this project going live in 2018 (when it was not perceived it would be a problem).

All were strong reasons for arguing that there was – and is – an increased level of signalling risk on Crossrail. SSR resignalling might have a different system supplied by a different manufacturer, but if they have underestimated train-to-track communication problems then what is the likelihood that Crossrail suppliers have done the same thing? And in both cases the trains involved were constructed (or modified) by Bombardier.

Why keep quiet?

The only obvious reason not to face up to the near-inevitable delay was pressure to deliver on time so as not to spook any potential ‘launch partners’, putting sponsorship money from that in jeopardy (just in case the line did actually manage to open on time). If this proves to be the case, it shows the dangers of launch sponsorship as it puts yet more pressure on those building a line to meeting a deadline, when the sensible thing to do is to admit it can’t be achieved and plan for an alternative.

There may be other reasons. As soon as you concede there is a delay contractors might regard themselves as ‘off the hook’ for any delay caused by them and not proceed with such haste. A pre-emptive announcement of a delay could make litigation against contractors more difficult to win in court. And the claimant in court has to show that he did everything he could to mitigate his losses by trying to make up time.

Keeping quiet to senior employees about the full extent of the problems and the delay caused could be for a similar reason to the one involving contractors. It could lead to Crossrail employees who believe that they are not on the critical path perceiving that the sense of urgency has gone away. The fact is that no full explanation has been forthcoming and the ‘we believed we could still meet the deadline’ explanation has been rigidly stuck to so far.

Exit Andrew Wolstenholme

From the Spring of 2018 Crossrail was in a bit of a state of disarray at the top, which must have led to the handling of the (worsening) situation not being as good as it could have been. The former Chief Executive, Andrew Wolstenholme had left abruptly in March 2018 and took up a new job at BAE Systems in May 2018. With Crossrail perceived as winding down, despite the emerging problems, his job was taken up by insider Simon Wright who was also expected to retain his existing role as Programme Director.

Exit Terry Morgan

Meanwhile, at the beginning of August 2018, Crossrail’s chairman, Sir Terry Morgan, became HS2 Ltd’s chairman – as well as continuing to be the chairman of Crossrail and also chairman of London City Airport. In hindsight, with what we now know, such an appointment to HS2 on top of his current responsibilities is inexplicable. Quite why Chris Grayling offered Terry Morgan the post and how Terry Morgan thought he could combine this with leading Crossrail through a very difficult period defies explanation. It wouldn’t have been so bad if Crossrail had a chief executive who was experienced in the job to make up for having a part-time chairman.

Shortly after taking up his post with HS2 it was widely reported that Terry Morgan would be stepping down from being Chairman at London City Airport ”to focus on HS2”. So, with Crossrail without an experienced dedicated chief executive and considerable challenges ahead to open on time, the Chairman was focusing on a different railway project with its own multitude of challenges, and, like Crossrail, many of these had not yet been resolved.

The problems behind the problems

It is easy to blame the transformer explosion or a whole host of other issues for the problems at Crossrail, but at a strategic level it seems to boil down to two things. One was a failure to be open and honest, at a management or contractor level still to become apparent, about what was going on. It is one thing not to be specific because the full picture is either not known or not yet fully understood, but it is another not to make people aware of the seriousness of problems at the first opportunity.

The failure to inform when serious problems started arising was compounded by Crossrail continuing to demobilise and wind down as planned, especially within management, despite it being clear that more than ever what was needed was for strong pro-active management to take charge. As we will see in the follow-up article that is starting to happen now, but it is clear that it should have happened much sooner.

Thanks to Jonathan Roberts for considerable assistance in preparing this article. Thanks also to ngh for detailed information on various issues.

Written by Pedantic of Purley