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  • Writer's pictureSi Shen

2018 - The Year of Delays

Year 2018 has been the ‘Year of Delays’ for all major projects that have something to do with tunnelling. With every single project one after another announcing substantial delays and cost overruns, people start to question, what is wrong with tunnels? Since Channel Tunnel in the 1980s, through Jubilee Line Extension, to nowadays Crossrail, Northern Line Extension, HS2 and Thames Tideway, almost every single tunnelling project in the UK in recent decades has had substantial overrun in time and cost.


If you ask tunnel engineers, the most common answer is ‘unexpected ground conditions’. Whereas this explanation is well-founded on a technical level – mother nature can be temperamental and difficult to deal with, there are a lot of other problems that extend into the social, economic and political environment. A project, just like a human being, needs the right environment to thrive.

Obviously, tunnelling projects are almost all public-funded mega projects.

The question is – is UK the right environment for mega projects? Let’s start with Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions. Below is an extract from the full table.

Power distance can be understood as the difference in power between the most powerful groups, such as authorities, and the least powerful groups. Simply-put, dictatorship and centralised power has high power distance, whereas democracy and de-centralised power has low power distance. UK has a highly fragmented and bottom-up political system. Simply put, the UK political system is like a community, where each resident has similar level of power, and looks after just a small plot of land in a group; they vote for individuals to manage the public well-being on behalf of the whole community, but fundamentally, no one belongs to anyone else. This creates a highly fragmented political framework, with a large amount of authorities, each performing only a small function in a large machine. As a mega project sponsor, there is no single authority that can give you a turnkey solution; you have to coordinate and satisfy the extremely heterogenous interests of various groups.

UK scores extremely high on ‘Individualism’. It means the degree to which individuals are integrated into groups. In other words, it means how much individuals weigh their own interest when pursuing collective goals. Adam Smith’s theory of individuals contributing towards collective well-being by pursuing their self-interest is spot-on in describing the specific mentality in the UK. High individualism in the authority structure creates a large number of ‘stakeholders’ for the project sponsor. These stakeholders, particularly when a project is considered to be extremely attractive, will try to embark upon the project. The scope of the project will inevitably have to be extended in order to incorporate the aspirations of all these stakeholders. However, as ambitions grow, so does cost.

UK also scores very low on long-term orientation. What UK tend to do when achieving ambitious targets is to make small incremental improvements. Its long-term strategy is to have no long-term strategy. Anything is contingent and flexible. UK knows well the danger of pinning oneself on to a rigid long-term strategy where the environment is turbulent. On the other hand, when planning mega projects, which usually take years or even decades to complete, you have to have a very strategic and stable environment to be able to forecast anything with meaningful accuracy. No strategy, no accuracy. Cost/time estimation has to be done based on a given set of conditions and assumptions. If these change along the way the project develops, it is not that the estimation is wrong, you are simply comparing apples with pears. UK’s ‘piecemeal’ approach makes UK a hostile environment for mega projects. In fact, in the UK, there has never been a track record for delivering major projects.

Obviously, tunnelling projects are almost all public-funded mega projects. Like living organisms on planet earth, when a project grows too big compared to its peers, its problems grow exponential. For a mega project, too many factors are beyond the project sponsor’s control – see my previous blog about this: People also tend to underestimate the complexity of interaction between different parts of the project, as well as the interaction between the project and others. Bent Flyvberg has a famous book “Megaprojects and Risk”, where he used a psychological term ‘optimism bias’ to describe the common phenomenon of cost overrun for megaprojects. Although this terminology may mislead you to believe the cost overrun is all a psychological pitfall of planners, it rightly describes the risks associated with mega projects.

For mega projects, time and cost overrun is not a ‘failure’, but a ‘norm’. Mega projects around the world succeed for different reasons, but they fail for the same, simple reason – too big. Like dinosaurs extinct for being too big for the planet, mega projects can fail by being too big for a given social and political environment.

UK should stop fancying the grand schemes other countries may appear to be capable of delivering, and stick to what we are truly good at. Grand schemes are nice show-off materials but you suffer traumatic setbacks when things go wrong. Piecemeal improvement looks boring and unsexy, but keeps you constantly on the move.

In the world of projects, size matters, and small is good. It is a race between the turtle and the rabbit.

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