Learning from failure - how to improve transport infrastructure delivery

7 min read

Impacting the UK’s most pressing challenges - but not without a change of direction. Levelling up and reaching net zero by 2050 are high on the UK’s agenda. Achieving them will require many industries to transform, but nothing worth doing is ever easy. 

In the transport infrastructure sector, where the opportunities to protect the planet and impact economic growth are significant, there is a pressing challenge overshadowing success and it’s time to address it head on.

For the last thirty years, the North’s economic output per person has stood at around 15% below the average for the rest of England (excluding London). For the Midlands that figure is 8%. As a result, improving connectivity and reducing congestion between our towns and cities has been widely accepted as a critical part in closing this socio-economic gap.

In terms of net zero, transport, as a whole, is the largest contributor to the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions (27%), with only a 5% reduction over the last 30 years, compared with a 66% fall in emissions from energy generation. Despite this limited gain, and in recognition of the sector’s role in achieving Net Zero by 2050, the Department for Transport published its ‘decarbonisation plan’ in July this year and the Independent Committee on Climate Change highlighted the criticality of investing in public transport to shift people towards greener travel.

Given the undeniable importance of this sector in the face of the climate emergency and the wider levelling up agenda, it is no wonder that the UK has a significant pipeline of investments - including HS2, the Lower Thames Crossing and East West Rail, as well as a wider programme of upgrades following the publication of the Integrated Rail Plan back in November.

However, many projects and programmes experience delivery challenges, often coming in late, over budget and underdelivering on benefits. In rail in particular, research from the University of Oxford showed an average cost overrun of nearly 45%, with 40% of projects not being delivered on time.

Aviation is no exception, with Berlin’s Brandenburg Airport being a particularly sobering example of what can go wrong. Construction works started back in 2006, with a promise of the airport opening in 2011 at a cost of around €2.4bn. It finally opened for operation in October 2020, almost a decade later, costing almost four times the original price. Reflecting on the political context needed to get major infrastructure projects off the ground, the architect of Berlin Brandenburg Airport, Meinhard von Gerkan, told Der Spiegel:

“The full truth does not get you further in this business. The Sydney Opera House would have never been approved, had it been known from the start what it would cost. It only works with a lie at the start.”

Given that so many projects experience problems, what are the lessons they tell us about how to improve and do things differently? Here are our top three takeaways that project sponsors need to think about:

Getting the basics right

Many large projects can quickly lose control of their programme, costs, scope and change requests. A robust Project Management Office, established at the start, and integrated within the wider works, can provide a ‘single source of truth’, creating a data-led environment for timely and well-informed decisions to be made.

Another crucial aspect is to embed the right blend of people, skills, experience and culture from the offset, which creates a project team with the capabilities needed to tackle challenges and make the most out of opportunities. Without question, no project can succeed without this sense of team unity, as very easily a ‘blame culture’ can permeate, resulting in inertia, a lack of critical thinking and a dampening of innovation.

Integrated design

Due to the way large projects are phased, engineering design work is often developed in silo from the teams who will eventually deliver the project, which can lead to overly complicated design processes which don’t work in reality.

A study by the Institute for Government after the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games found that one of the key success factors around delivery was that construction experts were brought in early, which reinforced a robust design and engineering scope, which lessened the need for subsequent changes.

Therefore, to ensure the realistic development of plans, delivery organisations should build the right, integrated teams from the offset start, so that the buildability of projects can be fully realised by experts from across the board.

Systems thinking

Large infrastructure projects are very complicated, with many different elements and people working together on their delivery.

One example of this type of complexity is seen in modern rail and underground projects, which have extremely technical signalling technology that needs to integrate with civil engineering works, as well as safety and monitoring systems.

Therefore, to understand how each element must come together, project sponsors and their partners need to think about projects as a complete system - with operations in mind. To develop this approach, project leaders need to understand their own ‘knowledge gaps’ and ensure they build a truly diverse, experienced and hands on delivery team which understands all the disparate elements of the project.

Over the past decade, these three issues have often been at the heart of project and programme challenges in the UK. Therefore, looking at how we tackle these is central to improving how we deliver.

Therefore, given that the implications of the global pandemic and climate change are only becoming more prescient, it is now more important than ever to listen to the lessons of the past to support the future of the UK.

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