When It All Goes Wrong: Part 2: Crossrail

In this series, we are looking at a range of situations where the symptoms of Complexity – and of inappropriate responses to Complexity – are particularly striking.

Whilst most Complexity-driven situations (and most of the inappropriate responses made) will never escalate this far, you may well recognise many elements of your own situation in these examples.

Part 2: Crossrail

Crossrail – now known as the Elizabeth Line – was an infrastructure project to develop a new railway line from west of London, across and under London, to the east of England.

The largest infrastructure project in Europe at the time, work began in 2009 and was originally scheduled to be completed in 2018. 

By November 2019, the opening was pushed back to 2021 at the earliest, with the budget already forecast to be over £2bn more than originally anticipated.

Whilst now open, it is instructive not to forget all the issues in getting to that point…

A Complex Project In Trouble

The November 2019 was only the latest in a long sequence of missed deadlines and overspend – for example, the BBC reported on 31st August 2018 that the project would be 9 months late and was running £600m over budget.  

In the article, the BBC’s London transport correspondent said that “I have lost count of the times that Crossrail executives said to me the project would be delivered “on time and on budget”. … I’m told it wasn’t one specific problem. There were issues with three different signalling systems and also delays to the station fit outs.”.

This one quote already starts to explain how Crossrail is both inherently Complex and made much worse by disastrous mismanagement: 

  • Hinting at the multiplicity of factors and unpredictability involved in a complex situation, we learn that the cause “wasn’t one specific problem” and that there were unforeseen issues
  • The combination of having fixed targets and then insisting on them reflects a common misassumption that complex situations can be specified and controlled.

It was therefore no surprise that, by 10th December 2018, the BBC was reporting a further delay of 9 months and injection of £1.4bn, or that there continued to be more issues.  Offering an overview, the same transport correspondent stated:

Crossrail was the industry’s mega star.  The largest infrastructure project in Europe once had its own documentary and was even the backdrop for adverts for nice 4x4s. But the project’s catchphrase “on time and on budget” has been totally obliterated. And it is Londoners who will have to pay through increased borrowing.  All kinds of questions need answering: if the project was in such bad shape why didn’t anyone spot it? Who knew what when?

Recognising The Issues

A lack of clarity and associated exchanges of blame and recrimination are both inevitable consequences of Complexity and its mishandling, respectively, and both were apparent again when the BBC reported on 3rd April 2019 that there had been another delay to 2020 at the earliest, i.e.:

The DfT and Crossrail Ltd “are unable to fully explain how the programme has been allowed to unravel” …It’s a real, real mess.”

Amidst all this, Parliament got involved by commissioning the National Audit Office (NAO) to perform an investigation into what had happened, the report of which was published in May 2019. 

The NAO report confirmed in devastating detail both Crossrail’s inherent Complexity and how it was managed in a completely Complexity-inappropriate way.

It led with “Crossrail is a large, complex programme…” and its second key finding stated that “Crossrail was always going to be complex and challenging.” – findings backed up by observations such as how key decisions had unintended consequences, which is an inherent facet of Complexity.

In Conclusion: Has Anything Been Learned?

Yet, despite this Complexity, the report detailed many aspects of mismanagement – amongst other things commenting on how “the plan did not adequately reflect interdependencies across the programme”, highlighting how vague aspirations took the place of detailed, realistic plans and activity, and also reporting an assumption that having the right people in the right places would allow for successful control over the various challenges.

On 10th November 2019, the BBC relayed a yet further delay to 2021, yet another overspend – this time of £650m – and a complete collapse in confidence.  Nobody ought to have been surprised.

Whilst now open, we should never forget the troubled creation of the Elizabeth Line, and it remains an open question – one of many – whether lessons were learned for other such projects.

The example of HS2 suggests not…