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Lessons from major rail infrastructure programmes

A National Audit Office review today of five major rail projects* sponsored by the Department for Transport since 1998 highlights 11 lessons it should apply to its current and future rail programmes.

Today’s review, which draws on published NAO value for money studies, highlights the many challenges the Department has encountered in these projects which are large in scale and complex, with construction either expected to or having taken 9 to 10 years, at a cost of up to £21.4 billion. It concludes that the Department has made progress in its management of rail infrastructure programmes and responded well on programmes such as Thameslink and Crossrail to manage risks and control costs. Overall, the NAO studies indicate an improvement in the Department’s sponsorship of major rail infrastructure programmes. Today’s review shows that the Department has taken action in relation to many issues raised in the NAO studies

However, as current and future rail programmes develop, there remain areas which the Department needs to address or where it needs to provide more focus.

  • Developing clear strategic business cases and scrutinising economic analysis of the estimated benefits of new railways. The strategic case is vital where the Department is looking to do more than increase capacity or meet other transport needs. Failing to explain the rationale for its investment can undermine the support the Department needs for a programme to go ahead. Programmes that aim to bring wider national and economic benefits, such as High Speed 1 and High Speed 2 (HS2), face the problem of a lack of evidence to demonstrate such impacts. Economic analysis must be checked to ensure it is realistic. The Department is improving quality assurance of its analysis. Such scrutiny might have identified errors in early analysis of phase 1 of HS2 which led to an initial benefit-cost ratio of 2.4:1 [restated in the 2013 NAO report to 2.6:1]since revised to 1.4:1 which is more in line with equivalent programmes.
  • Economic assumptions also need to reflect changes in real-life behaviour. The Department is well regarded in government and internationally for its economic analysis. However, it was slow to take account of potentially significant changes to passenger behaviour in its initial economic analysis for HS2. It has subsequently revised its business case to include new evidence on the value of business travellers’ time and has a programme of further research to understand how passenger behaviour has changed now that new technology is available such as laptops, tablets and internet connections on trains.
  • The Department needs more programme management capacity and skills. The Department has sought to manage its limited pool of experienced programme managers by rotating senior staff between programmes, putting the most experienced people on the highest risk programmes and appointing experts to do detailed reviews. These actions demonstrate that it has a shortage of skilled staff and this is an issue which the NAO and the Committee of Public Accounts have repeatedly commented upon. The Department also needs to use its experienced staff to build skills and capability in their teams so that it has sufficient capacity for the number and scale of programmes for which it is responsible. Securing such skills may become more difficult in the future given the number of large infrastructure projects currently in progress and planned.
  • Beneficiaries of new transport could contribute more funding and finance. On Crossrail, sponsors have used a mixed model of public and private funding. Beneficiaries of the line are providing funding through a business rate supplement and negotiated contributions from private sources although the Department did not secure all the contributions that it initially expected and may have to contribute an extra £160 million. On HS2 there remains uncertainty as to how much private sector contribution the Treasury is seeking and for which elements it would wish others to pay. The Department needs a better understanding of the wider benefits transport investment brings, through evaluation, to negotiate larger contributions for future programmes.

October 2014

 

 

Notes for Editors

£3.6bn to £21.4bn
Range of actual or forecast construction costs of the rail infrastructure programmes we have examined (costs are in different price bases).

13 to 29 years
Range of timescales the programmes have taken, or are forecast to take, to deliver, from planning to the start of operations.

5
Number of significant rail infrastructure programmes in the UK since 1998, from which we have developed these lessons.

9 to 10 years
Of actual or forecast construction phases for these programmes.

3 to 9
New or substantially remodelled stations in each programme.

2.1: 1 to 1.4:1
Range of benefit-cost ratios for the rail programmes at the time the Department approved them to go ahead; the higher ratio was for Thameslink and the lower for High Speed 2.

355 km
Of planned and completed new UK rail lines built since 1998  in the High Speed 1, Crossrail and High Speed 2 programmes

1,255 km
Of existing rail lines which have or will be transformed in the 2 upgrade programmes in the West Coast Mainline modernisation and Thameslink programmes.

  1. * The report draws on published NAO work on both completed projects - the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (later called High Speed 1) and the modernisation of the West Coast Mainline - and ongoing projects: Crossrail, Thameslink and High Speed 2.
  1. Press notices and reports are available from the date of publication on the NAO website, which is at www.nao.org.uk. Hard copies can be obtained by using the relevant links on our website.
  2. The National Audit Office scrutinises public spending for Parliament and is independent of government. The Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG), Amyas Morse, is an Officer of the House of Commons and leads the NAO, which employs some 820 employees. The C&AG certifies the accounts of all government departments and many other public sector bodies. He has statutory authority to examine and report to Parliament on whether departments and the bodies they fund have used their resources efficiently, effectively, and with economy. Our studies evaluate the value for money of public spending, nationally and locally. Our recommendations and reports on good practice help government improve public services, and our work led to audited savings of £1.1 billion in 2013.

PN: 53/14