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National Audit Office reports on Crossrail challenges

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The National Audit Office (NAO) has released its latest report on the progress being made by Crossrail (the company in charge of construction) to deliver the Elizabeth line across and beneath London.

The National Audit Office report.

Because the NAO doesn’t not report continuously, but looks at ‘snapshots’ in time, the current situation is compared with that in May 2019, at the time of its last report.

When the NAO last reported, the funding package for Crossrail stood at £17.6 billion, the forecast cost was £17 billion, and the central section of the Elizabeth line was due to open by March 2021 at the latest.

The latest report finds that the revised schedule and budget agreed for Crossrail in April 2019 was unachievable because the programme was further from being complete than Crossrail and the programme’s sponsors understood. Although cost increases and schedule delays are in line with Crossrail’s 2020 estimates, they exceed the available budget and there are still significant issues that could arise as the railway is brought into service.

The new management team hired in November 2018 had to start largely from scratch when setting a revised plan to complete the programme. Milestones were repeatedly missed in 2019 and into 2020 due to Crossrail continually uncovering problems or identifying requirements for new work. Despite contractors meeting only 30% of milestones on average throughout 2019 and early 2020, Crossrail continued to base its plans on more optimistic levels of productivity.

The COVID-19 pandemic added further cost and delay to the programme, but Crossrail Ltd took the opportunity to improve its planning of remaining work. Crossrail estimates that £228 million of the increase in cost since April 2019 is a direct result of factors relating to COVID-19. In response to the delays and the need to make workspaces safe, it worked closely with contractors to plan and re-sequence remaining work. Between August 2020 and April 2021, contractors met around 90% of milestones.

Since the last NAO report, Crossrail has taken steps to reset the project, based on its experience and better understanding of the challenges being thrown up by the project.

In August 2020, Crossrail confirmed it would need between £800 million and £1.1 billion more funding to complete the programme and that the line would open in the first half of 2022. In December 2020, the Department for Transport (DfT) and the Greater London Authority agreed £825 million of additional funding, leaving a potential shortfall of £275 million, not against Crossrail’s latest estimate, but against the funding committed to the project.

The latest cost estimate of £18.9 billion at May 2021 exceeds the available funding package by £120 million. However, as at May 2021, most major construction work is complete, and Crossrail is in the process of transferring assets, such as stations, to Rail for London Infrastructure (RfLi) and London Underground, which will maintain and operate different parts of the Elizabeth line.

Crossrail CEO Mark Wild gives his May 2021 progress update.

Crossrail is still committed to the first half of 2022 opening date. However, the NAO found that the first stage of operational testing, known as trial running, is six weeks behind the ‘best case’ target date, but still within the range of dates as set out in the revised August 2020 schedule. The software update needed for the next stage of testing is also delayed by three to eight weeks.

The NAO also feels that having several organisations now responsible for bringing the Elizabeth line into service adds complexity. As the central section approaches the start of passenger services, responsibility for completing, maintaining and operating the Elizabeth line is shared between London Underground, RfLi, Network Rail and Mass Transit Railway Elizabeth line (MTREL). The NAO reported that it often finds that programmes have problems when roles and responsibilities change, and when they are shared between different bodies.

As a result, the NAO recommended that Crossrail and RfLi should work together to set out a clear plan for handing the Elizabeth line over to RfLi in preparation for the start of passenger services. TfL and government should also set out a strategy to maximise the potential benefits of the Elizabeth line.

Gareth Davies, National Audit Office.

Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, commented: “Crossrail was further from completion than anyone understood when the DfT, TfL and Crossrail reset the programme in 2019. The problems we identified in our previous report have been difficult to address and have continued to affect the programme.

“There are now encouraging signs that Crossrail is in a more stable position. However, it will require further funding to complete, and there are still significant risks that must be managed as the Elizabeth line undergoes operational testing.

“As the Elizabeth line nears the start of services in 2022, TfL and government must think through how to realise the benefits of the railway in order to maximise the return on almost £19 billion of investment.”

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