In between the summer holidays and the arrival of a new prime minister, few people might have noticed that the government had quietly squandered nearly £200m, hesitating for a decade. Even less will be surprised. But we must pay attention, not only in the UK, but all over the world, because this type of waste is ubiquitous and completely avoidable.
Said loss is the result of endless changes in a plan to upgrade the 76-mile Transpennine, an unreliable, crowded, and outdated rail line connecting York and Leeds to Manchester and, by extension, Liverpool. The initial plan, outlined 11 years ago and three or four prime ministers before, was to electrify the line to reduce operating costs and carbon emissions. It was supposed to cost £289m and be finished by the end of 2019. Instead, the National Audit Office says the project is still under planning. If that wasn’t frustrating enough, £190m was somehow spent on unnecessary work.
How did this happen? Ministers hesitate endlessly about details as staff and budgets change. Work began in 2015, then paused almost immediately while awaiting a review of the Network Rail investment program. When it restarted later that year, the project’s goals changed: the line is now required to accommodate more passengers on faster, more frequent, and more reliable trains. Another rethink necessitated the upgrade to put in an additional track, enhance station platforms and digital signal input.
Other commitments were not necessary for the Transpennine line itself, but are designed to help it coordinate with Northern Powerhouse Rail, an ambitious proposal to build a new high-speed line from Leeds to Manchester and possibly to Liverpool. All of this may sound more encouraging if the high-speed line itself is not drastically reduced in late 2021.
The estimated cost of the Transpennine Project ballooned from less than £300m in 2011, to 10 times that figure in 2019, before more than tripling again to around £10bn in 2021. If so, The northern cities will at least be satisfied that the project is underway. Rather, it is a constant change of scope.
“The project has been all over the place during this decade,” the Flyffberg girl told me. He is a megaproject expert, professor of management at Oxford University and co-author of an upcoming book, How Big Things Get Done. Flyvbjerg suggested a plausible explanation: a decade ago, the government announced that it would take action; She spent the time lapse trying to figure out what action to take. He added that “£190m for non-essential work could be considered the price you pay for making ads before you know what you’re talking about.”
If the story sounds familiar, it’s because projects often unfold in such a random manner. Anyone who has remodeled their kitchen is familiar with the temptation to rethink work halfway through; Many of us know the costs of giving in to this temptation. One hopes it will do better than the massive, professionally managed projects that Flyvbjerg is considering, but usually in vain.
Long planning periods are not the problem. Flyvbjerg discusses a “think slow, act fast” approach to large projects: explore all options; Prototyping, testing and planning at large scale; Only then, start building, but build quickly. Often times, we start building first, and then plan later. And before the planning itself begins in earnest, it’s a good idea to know why the project is happening. There is no doubt that there is a reasonable justification for the investments to reduce emissions and costs, increase reliability and capacity, and reduce journey times and connectivity with other rail projects. But the government did not start with any of those, but with the sense that it would be a very good idea to promise some investment in the North.
“Political ads without action, and without much thought, are common, and not only in the UK,” says Flyvbjerg. quite. A few years ago, I argued that Brexit was also a huge project, which is what makes the Transpennine Railroad look like a masterpiece of forward planning. David Cameron conducted a referendum while preventing civil servants from preparing for what turned out to be the outcome; Theresa May scrambled to launch Article 50 before asking what she wanted to achieve in the ensuing negotiations; Boris Johnson was never able to plan anything more complicated than an illegal drinking party.
After more than a decade, the Transpennine upgrade finally has a budget, goals, and a plan. Meanwhile, the National Audit Office says, “the capacity of passenger services on the road has been reached, and flights are becoming increasingly unreliable and congested.”
Large projects are complex and difficult, but the basic principles are not. Take your time planning. When the plan is complete, implement it as quickly as possible. Keep things as simple as possible, using repetitive modular items and avoiding first-in-the-world catches. Above all else, ask yourself what you are trying to achieve before you begin. One has only to list these principles to understand why politicians often fail to respect them.
Written for and first published in the Financial Times on September 2, 2022.
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