Opinion: Commissioning – The Forgotten Part of Rail

Elizabeth Line train under London.

Tony Latienda, director – rail sector, Andrew Reid & Partners, gives his opinion on how the issues around the completion of the Crossrail project have highlighted the lack of attention to detail that commissioning is given in such large-scale infrastructure schemes.

Tony Latienda.

In January this year Crossrail chiefs were already warning that the £14 billion Elizabeth line were pushing the funding and programme envelope. This ambitious scheme that will link Reading and Heathrow with Shenfield and Abbey Wood should complete at the end of December 2019, with the central sections due to open in December this year.

An explosion that occurred at Pudding Mill Lane in November 2017 has been cited as a key reason for the delays. However, what is disappointing about this is not that the explosion happened but that it was the result of an incorrect design.

The Crossrail project began in 2009, with many teams of experts working together to design and develop this state-of-the-art rail project, yet it wasn’t until the power was switched on to discover a design fault that will cost time and money to rectify and with the commissioning activity left to pick up the pieces at the last minute, carnage will happen, where all the parties involved are guilty of taking their eyes of the ball, forgetting this crucial component part of the delivery process.

Commissioning is a critical part of the process of assuring that all systems and equipment within a building are designed, installed, tested, set to work, operated and maintained according to the operational requirements of the owner.

Unfortunately, ignorance of commissioning is not an uncommon practice in the rail sector, a lot of which will be solved if independent commissioning experts were appointed much earlier in both providing either a joined up practical commissioning strategy at the beginning and associated detailed commissioning solutions afterwards are included as part of early contractor involvement with the supply chain aligned to Rail Assurance. Ironically the very reasons that early decommissioning planning is so vital are also the contributing reasons to why it doesn’t happen – scale and complexity.

There are many stakeholders involved in rail projects encompassing governance, regulation, finance, all types of delivery partners, involving transport and freight operating companies, passengers, trade unions, local groups, media and lobby groups etc. Each of these have their own agenda, priorities and culture which makes the identification of a common goals incredibly challenging but creates opportunities for everyone involved.

Many of these issues are inherited, a ‘legacy of pain’ since the privatisation of British Rail where the lessons learned have been continuously captured and shared but unfortunately ignored and not implemented.

So how do we start to solve this and break the cycle?

It is my passion and belief that many of the issues could be eradicated by the stakeholders involved in making a positive commitment at the outset to appoint independent commissioning experts, other industries do it, thus negating the risk at every stage of the project, it is a redirection of investment moving away from the ‘self-delivery’ model but the ultimate saving on the bottom line is potentially huge on whole life costs and this opportunity should not be missed by everyone involved – this will unlock rail investment, building confidence and reduce costs.

The world is watching, it’s not too late. 

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