It’s nearly three years since Crossrail had to cancel on the Queen.
Booked for ribbon cutting duties in December 2018, the plan was for Britain’s monarch to be at the star attraction of the opening of the brand new Elizabeth Line named in her honour.
But, just a few months before she was about to declare the purple addition to the London Underground map open, to the shock of most Londoners, everything was delayed.
It turned out that, contrary to the promises of mayor Sadiq Khan and the rail line’s management, the project was actually running massively late.
Not that this was a surprise to anyone on a Crossrail site; the people on the ground had known for at least a year and a half that they were seriously lagging behind.
But it gets worse.
An investigation by My London into the reasons for the delay suggests that:
There were a significant number of people being paid by the Crossrail who either didn’t care or were happy for the job to go on as long as possible.
There were cases of self-sabotage both systematically and by rogue individuals. This led to additional security measures in areas of some projects.
The construction ran ahead of the design and at times contractors guessed at what they should build.
The project was nicknamed ‘the hokey cokey’ by employees so frequently were sections of work being put in, ripped out and re-installed
Workers witnessed billions of pounds worth of waste be generated through a lack of planning and poor management.
Mismanagement across all levels of the project made many sites chaotic and distrustful.
It should be emphasised that the management team now in charge has changed substantially and the current leadership, headed-up by chief executive Mark Wild, were brought in to address the problems which caused the delay.
While some of the issues the My London investigation found were mentioned in a 2019 report by the National Audit Office, Londoners have never heard the full details of what happened on-the-ground because those involved have been too scared to speak out.
Most of the people who broke that silence for this story, did so on the condition of anonymity. They are scared that by revealing what took place, particularly about how some exploited the chaos on-site, they will be blacklisted and never work in the industry again.
This is the story of Crossrail’s delay the people who profited from the project don’t want you to hear.
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Where did it all go wrong?
The project started to spiral out of control about two years before the original December 2018 deadline.
Up until that point things had run relatively smoothly.
The giant tunnel boring machines which had been carving their way through the bowels of the city had done so with relative ease, it was when the project needed fitting-out the confusion started.
“The tunnelling side was run pretty much to time and [on] budget,” a source with experience working at many stages of the job told My London.
“But as soon as that contract ended there were mass delays and mass problems.”
Fit-out involves the installation of all the different systems needed for the line to work; from ventilation shafts and drainage pipes to the electrical wiring and signalling systems.
This sees lots of specialist subcontractor ‘trades’ working side by side to install different elements.
As a result, when Crossrail’s fit-out ramped up in 2016 the number of companies employed on the project spiked.
The larger firms brought substantial management teams, many of whom had characters with big egos; they clashed with each other regularly on several of Crossrail’s vast and complicated sites.
“There was a lot of management, but they all had conflicting ideas,” the source continued.
“In my personal experience, there were a lot of arguments, it was very political.”
This could have been overcome, but the people in charge of getting the warring subcontractor bosses to work together were absent.
Multiple sources described how project managers operated in a separation from the people on the ground and, for a two year period, it was almost like having no leadership at all.
“There were a number of years on the project during the construction, back in 2016-2017, where there was [effectively] no management,” the source told My London.
“Construction managers were constantly going into meetings, getting all these deadlines and tasks.
“The actual information from the ground was getting passed up but then nothing was happening with it.”
This was all made worse because there were times when there was no design for anyone to work from.
That’s right; no design.
Crossrail: ‘Build whatever you think’
As the fit-out intensified, construction overtook what had been designed on paper at sections of the Crossrail project.
There were overall ideas about what needed to be installed, but the specific details had not been confirmed.
Arrogance and complacency amongst those tasked with monitoring things had built up in the preceding seven years which meant the problem was never taken seriously enough.
Instead, there was a blind insistence that deadlines would be hit.
“You don’t expect [construction to overtake design] because you think the design will be progressing faster,” a project insider told My London.
“I would suspect that was relatively early on [management] probably knew, but like with everything else they said; ‘it will be okay, it will be okay.’
“You should never ask somebody to continue to progress with construction when designs have not been agreed.”
A project like Crossrail has to be built to incredibly high specifications and requires extreme levels of quality control to ensure it is fit for the public’s use.
This means poorly planned work which doesn’t adhere to a set design will almost certainly have to be replaced.
Everyone knew that, but carried on regardless, seemingly ignoring the fact delays would be caused later.
“People knew that changes were going to impact [deadlines],” the insider continued.
“[But] it was just get on and do it type attitude from both [Crossrail] and the [contractors].”
The NAO report found that many of the mistakes on the project were driven by the obsession with a fixed completion date.
This was also a factor that pushed up costs.
Incentives for re-doing work
The contracts Crossrail had signed with the builders did little to help because they were based on a fixed-price lump sum agreement.
These deals provided little incentive to the contractors to finish the job quickly because they are given a set amount for the whole job, timing is largely irrelevant.
This type of contract also means work that falls outside of the contract is charged separately, commonly referred to as contract ‘variations’
This meant every time a contractor built something that wasn’t specified it counted as a variation and could be billed as extra.
The more times Crossrail asked one of the companies to re-do something the more they had to pay them.
Another worker on the project remembers being appalled at the way companies “abused” this system.
“You’ve got to make a design and stick to it, you cannot be changing your mind,” they said.
“[Especially] when you’re spending taxpayers money on something for the people of London.”
In some cases, subcontractors employed smaller specialist companies to carry out work who were paid by the hour, this gave them a direct incentive to prolong their time on the job.
The result in some cases was self-sabotage.
“They would sabotage work so that they had additional weeks of work,” explained the project insider, “people knew that that went on.”
“That’s why they ended up installing a system where rooms were locked and you had to get a permit to get the key.
“But that was a bit like closing the gate once the horse had bolted. All the damage had already been done.”
In other cases My London found the sabotage was more systematic; wiring was installed under walkways which would obviously damage it or installed deliberately in the wrong order meaning it would almost certainly have to be removed.
Matters were made worse by Crossrail continuing to make changes to the design and pressurising contractors to hit the predetermined deadlines, two essentially contradictory demands.
“I’m sure if you asked anybody within the project, they will tell you that the amount of design changes were ridiculous,” the insider added.
The upshot of this was huge amounts of waste.
A worker on the project remembers completing sections of pedestrian tunnel one day and ripping them out to throw in a skip the next.
They said: “We’d photograph stuff we’d done on the night shift and send it off in a report.
“We’d come back in the next night shift and they would say; ‘right, that’s got to be taken down because the drawings have been changed.’
“There were billions wasted on the whole project. [There was] stuff that shouldn’t have been ordered that was just skipped.”
Another instance at one of the stations, a whole ceiling was built based on what the contractors thought should have been installed, when they checked with the design team, the whole thing had to be removed.
Jerry Swain, Unite the Union’s National Officer for Construction, who had a large number of his members working on the project, said the job was known as the “hokey cokey” amongst workers for the constant replacement works that went on.
“They put an [electrical] sub-station in three times,” he said.
“Building something like that can take weeks.”
“It was down to poor management, poor design and a complete lack of organisation.”
Responding to the findings of the My London investigation a Crossrail spokesperson said: “The Elizabeth line is one of the most complex infrastructure projects ever undertaken in the UK and has faced significant challenges. The delays announced in 2018 were hugely disappointing but we are on track to open the new railway in the first half of 2022.
“A new leadership team was put in place in late 2018 to complete the railway and tackle the issues which had led to the project being delayed. The governance structures for the Crossrail project have also been completely redesigned to streamline decision making and increase transparency.
“Crossrail has recently reached a significant milestone with the commencement of the trial running phase and the start of four trains an hour operating through the central tunnels as part of the major railway trials taking place on the system throughout this year.”
The cost of the chaos
The cost of the chaos that unfolded when the trades arrived on site to work with no design is clear to see.
Since the fit-out work first began in 2015 the overall cost of Crossrail has increased by an extra £4 billion.
This additional spend is almost a third of the original budget (£14.9 billion) and it has all come in the final quarter of the timetable for construction.
That extra cost has been even more damaging to the taxpayer because it has come at the same time as a delay to the running of the service, which Transport for London hoped would start earning £500 million a year from 2018.
Crossrail has grown so frustrated with the work of the contractors at some of its station projects it has taken them over itself.
Testing is now beginning to ramp up in the tunnels and there is hope that the deadline of 2022 can be successfully hit.
But the heavy burden the London taxpayer caused by mismanagement and cynical opportunism should not be forgotten for projects in the future.
Did you work on the Crossrail project? contact [email protected] with your stories.