Crossrail: On time and on budget, or delayed and descoped?

construction cranesMinisters and rail industry bosses frequently claim that Crossrail is being delivered ‘on time and on budget’, but is that really the case? A 2014 National Audit Office report suggests that, at best, these spokespeople may have been misinformed by their advisers.

The NAO analysis reveals that in 2009 ‘the anticipated cost of the programme had escalated to £17.8 billion’, taking the likely budget to about £19 billion once the rolling stock is included.

The report states that to reduce costs to an acceptable level, ‘the schedule for opening the railway has been extended’, with sponsors agreeing ‘to extend the timetable for full opening from May 2018 to December 2019’ (p. 22). Further economies were achieved by ‘simplifying integration works, re-sequencing work and reducing scope, saving £800 million’ (ibid.). In other words, the project seems to have been delayed and descoped and apparently will not be built to the specifications originally envisaged.

If an infrastructure project is already underway but heading over-budget, there are of course two main options to address this: increasing the budget by obtaining more money from funders, or building less infrastructure for the same money. In the case of Crossrail, the NAO analysis implies that if it had been built on time and to the original specification, the cost may have been approximately £20 billion (and it may have been far higher if the prolonged slump had not put downward pressure on construction rates).

It remains to be seen whether the scheme will actually meet the revised schedule and budget, since much of the construction work is yet to be completed. Whatever the outcome in five years’ time, claims that Crossrail is ‘on time and on budget’ risk misleading the public.

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