Great Western fallout: repercussions further down the line

It started in the 1960s within the US defence industry. It’s just reaching Network Rail now, five decades later.

What is it? Earned value management, usually abbreviated to EVM. It’s a technique used in project management that combines measures of spending and delivery to assess progress. It does more than measure time and money, recognising that neither gives an accurate picture of a project.

Say you’re building a house. You’re halfway through the project in time terms and you’ve spent have the budget. All sounds well. But you’ve yet to build the foundations. All is not well.

Of the Great Western Route Modernisation, the National Audit Office says in its recent report: “Management information has not been of the standard we have seen on other major programmes. The information that the programme board has received about costs and schedule for the infrastructure programme has not been based on an earned value management approach, in line with best practice for managing major programmes. It has not fully informed the board about progress with delivery and has made it difficult to monitor risks.”

The NAO uses moderate language but its report is more powerful for that. The overall message is damning for Network Rail. It’s Great Western project should be a case study in project management textbooks as an example of how not to embark on complex projects. It doesn’t help that the Department for Transport kept changing its mind and that it was equally inept at managing the overall programme that also included procuring the trains to use NR’s new overhead lines and the franchise that would operate those trains.

The projects that formed the programme started in 2007 when DfT decided to procure new high-speed diesel trains. Then it changed its mind to announce electrification in 2009. It took DfT to December 2012 before it issued an early outline of Great Western and Welsh electrification works (the government and minister had changed in the interim, inevitably leading to reviews). Just a month later, in January 2013, Network Rail confirmed in its strategic business plan for 2014-2019 (Control Period 5) that it expected to be able to complete the work the DfT wanted. It took another 18 months to agree what that work was in detail and over two years for DfT to produce a business case for it.

It wasn’t until January 2016 that the DfT appointed a ‘senior responsible officer’ (SRO) to oversee the programme. (Back in 2012, a review into the DfT’s failed West Coast franchise competition criticised the department for not having a clear, single SRO with overall responsibility.) Bear in mind that DfT had wanted electric trains running this year and you can see how late it had left the situation before taking any form of control.

Meanwhile, NR was struggling too. A combination of staff shortages in critical areas such as signalling design and testing and other projects running late was putting pressure on its GW plans. Electrification demands upgraded signalling, which is immunised against the effects of overhead lines. It needs to be in place before the wires. So when NR’s Swindon-Bristol Parkway signalling project slipped into 2107 it was obvious NR would miss the date for electric trains to be running.

Bristol’s resignalling has also slipped. It should have been done by 2015 to allow electric trains to run from 2016. It’s now not expected to be finished until 2019. The NAO’s report could only say that the completion date for electrification into Bristol Temple Meads was “to be determined; expected by March 2024”.

Rail Minister Paul Maynard pre-empted the NAO when he announced the day before it published its report that he had suspended electrification into Temple Meads (and to Oxford, Henley and Windsor). He used the word ‘defer’ but his statement is notable for not even hinting at a revised date. I suspect that Temple Meads will not see electric trains for many years, if at all. Instead, the hybrid electro-diesel trains serving it will run on diesel power for their final few miles into Temple Meads.

The combination of DfT’s inept management and NR’s shoddy delivery has likely put paid to further electrification projects. Maynard’s statement came on November 8. The evening before he had spoken in a House of Commons debate about Midland Main Line electrification. He talked about wires to Corby and Kettering to be used by 12-car commuter trains to and from London.

Pushed to commit to electrifying to Sheffield in stages by 2023, the minister simply said: “I will merely repeat what I have just said, which is that we are committed to the development of the ongoing electrification programme.”

Yet the 2023 date was the one contained in NR Chairman Sir Peter Hendy’s letter in September 2015 to the transport secretary that led to DfT’s decision to ‘unpause’ the MML project. Hendy said no more than “this electrification can proceed”. He provided no evidence in his letter to justify this assertion. Over a year later, there’s still no evidence that NR can deliver MML, plenty in the NAO’s report to suggest it can’t and little in Maynard’s speech to suggest it will have to.

Doubtless NR is learning lessons. There are plenty in the NAO’s report. NR invested in a factory train to speed the erection of masts. It bought the train before it realised it would need deeper mast foundations. This meant the train had to be modified. It expected the train to deliver 18 pile foundation per shift. It now plans on eight.

Designers were working to decide mast types and locations before they had details of what types of mast they could use, which led to revised work. Design work started in June 2013 but the catalogue of parts was not fully available until May 2015.

The NAO found that NR had no controlling mind on the project, no integrated programme, no independent challenge teams and no consolidated view of the track access it would need to complete its work.

Take a trip along the Great Western Main Line and you’ll see plenty of wiring and masts between Airport Junction and Didcot. Indeed, NR has finally completed the section here needed to allow Hitachi to test its IEP trains (it should have delivered this test section by September 2015).

West of Didcot the situation is very different. There are pockets of masts and foundations. Any idea you might have that the factory train would start at A and work steadily towards B leaving a trail of masts in its wake would be mistaken. NR appears to have dug a few foundations here and a few there with no apparent rhyme or reason.

It’s been a grim few weeks for NR. Parliament’s Transport Select Committee tore into its Digital Railway plans, the Scottish government called for devolved control amid delayed and over-budget projects, a UK minster suspended parts of its headline electrification project and then the NAO clinically dismembered the way it had been managing this project.

NR has a hugely complex task in operating, maintaining, renewing and enhancing Britain’s rail network. It’s always in the public eye and has owners adept at changing their minds. It needs a top team with an intense focus on delivery. In this context, Chief Executive Mark Carne’s fixation with the Digital Railway is a distraction. Had he concentrated on delivering CP5’s very demanding programme, rather than chasing his chimera, his time might not be littered with broken promises.

Hendy and Carne have recently been talking about the need to attract private investment into the railways because both recognise that government will not keep pouring money in. With a record like Great Western Route Modernisation, they face an uphill battle.

This article first appeared in RAIL 814, published November 23 2016.

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Philip Haigh

Freelance railway writer, former deputy editor at RAIL magazine - news, views and analysis of today's railway.

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