All Aboard the Digital Express

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From BIM Journal. Click Here to Read Issue 3

From BIM Journal Issue 03 – here

In terms of BIM and the rail sector it would be criminal to not include a project of the size, scale and complexity of Crossrail when it comes to information and data handling on such a large scale. So let us once again blow the lid off this astounding project that really does cement BIM as a modern day pioneering digital approach that is truly worth shouting about.[11]

Cataloguing the remains of 3000 skeletons, nudging substations across the street and conducting a workforce of over 60 nationalities aren’t typical concerns for many projects these days. And then there’s Crossrail. A project so complex yet so triumphant - it seemed to take some time to capture the hearts and minds of mega-project fans outside of the capital and for good reason. Lack of disaster, lack of catastrophe, little unplanned disruption, strong health and safety, innovative technology use and early (and continued) stakeholder engagement has seen far too little doom and gloom for the mainstream media to exploit. Yet as any project goes, it certainly hasn’t been without conflict.

For all that’s wrong with the UK at present Crossrail is something that's right. During a recent tour of the works and an excellent one day seminar (organised by Northumbria University) I’m incredibly proud of the project already - yet I’ve had nothing to do with it. It just makes you feel that way when you know what’s involved.

So what does £15.9 billion get you? Well, £14.8 billion for a start. How so? Timely cost reviews continually capture the innovative techniques used on the project so much so that costs are kept down whilst still exceeding project quality wholesale. Crossrail is firmly on the world stage and something of a legacy for the UK (and then some) so quality in all it’s shapes and sizes is something that will never be compromised. Meanwhile innovation elsewhere sees meaningful value being added continuously, and the budget gets adjusted to reflect this. Especially important when you’re delivering an additional 200 million passenger journeys per year. Here’s that figure again:

  • An additional 200 000 000 passenger journeys per year, plus
  • 40 Stations (10 of which are brand new)
  • 42km of new track (including suspended concrete)
  • 8 million tons of removed spoil
  • 140 main works contracts
  • ...and much more

In light of the above, it’s worth clarifying now that it’s slightly misleading to describe Crossrail as a project, at least in it’s own right. Crossrail Ltd is the client organisation that oversees the delivery of dozens of sub projects that range spectacularly in value. The principal backers in terms of funding (the customers) are Transport for London (TfL) and the Department of Transport (DoT) together with contributions from public and private industries alike. Resulting in a business plan that was initially so scrutinised that it needed to go around the houses twice before getting approval to go through parliament. But leaving the business interests aside, the devil is always in the detail so let’s delve a little deeper.

The stations alone are nearly twice the length of the existing underground stations (and substantially wider) but what is more impressive is just how well they're integrated. At Tottenham Court Road the tunnels come within just a few hundred millimetres of the Northern line. As for other obstacles, the lake at the Barbican is directly above the new (Elizabeth) line, as are parts of the Thames so risk management is paramount too. But technical innovation is only one thing (we’ll come back to this later) as a catalogue of bureaucratic setbacks had also occurred, which we’ll examine further in the words of the key personnel in attendance on the day.

Stakeholder Engagement


Simon Bennett is the Head of Learning Legacy at Crossrail. A title that alone conveys the prestige of the project. In a fast and sympathetic overview Simon elaborated on the complexity of having as many as three separate local authorities with three separate ways of doing things at just one location (Farringdon) and the need to nurture these relationships from the start. A hybrid Act of Parliament helped (granted for Crossrail in 2008 - effectively removing some powers from Local Authorities) but this type of legislation change is vital to avoid the situation of hundreds of planning applications being in place with dozens of different authorities at the same time. The thought of which doesn’t bear thinking about.

However, as stakeholder consultations capture the thoughts, needs and opinions of all persons affected by the project, then of the 631 petitions raised only 204 made it to a hearing in parliament. This was because many were either duplicates already, or assurances were already given (the project was changed) to accommodate the stakeholders’ needs. Significant other issues were legal commitments to make sure that tunnelling didn’t occur during school exam times and the like. Those kinds of detail. Even re-housing had to take place and many properties were acquired before the works progressed. Unsurprisingly a lot of negotiating had to take place and this was skilfully dealt with by Simon and the team and it continues to this day (politicians, media, general public).

Risk Management

Vital work really as risk itself is of course a colossal factor here, given a project of this scope and size bang in the heart of London. Thankfully Rob Halstead (Head of Risk Management) and the team stepped up to the mantle. An astounding array of qualitative and quantitative means of risk analysis and mitigation tools were employed to help to describe the various potential project outcomes at all stages of development. These systems then require adoption by the supply chain too (monte-carlo simulations and the like) as simple RAG systems are all well and good, but they are of little use when comparing one (sub) project to another.

When asked “which risks have been both over and underestimated?” Rob admitted that the tunnelling process had been a significant concern from day one, quite naturally, but it had gone astoundingly well. Yet “designing to cost” had been underestimated somewhat and Rob and the team still battle with conflicting, or at least unsympathetic statistics and expectations a lot of the time. Important work indeed and the lessons learned here will subsequently feed into Thameslink and HS2.


Rob Little (Head of Planning at Crossrail) spoke with a gusto and authority that his many years at Crossrail will bring. Being in charge of 50 planners is an incredible challenge and this has been approached from a viewpoint of “plan well and keep the cost analysis out of it” in the spirit of “take care of the pennies and the pounds will take care of themselves”. A constant juggle of course was the dichotomy between the client’s schedule versus that of the contractor’s but healthy progress continues to be made. In terms of specifics, then large planning challenges so far have been the implementation of the concreting train (yes, a portable batching plant) as well as some sections of the suspended concrete track slabs too (near the Barbican, in order to further reduce vibration). The programme was duly affected but it was also sensibly designed in the first place to at least partially mitigate for these concerns. Contingency isn’t a dirty word on a project like this.


For fellow BIM enthusiasts out there then strap yourselves in. Malcolm Taylor took to the stage (Head of Technical Information) and it was Malcolm’s talk that really scratched the itch of many an inner nerd. The complexity of the construction sequences that the BIM tools easily conveyed were something to behold (largely thanks to Bentley’s ProjectWise) and even now I don’t know how you’d describe them even to experienced contractors in 2D. But this was a small part of Malcolm’s speech and becoming a true champion of project information was the real driver here. Information needs to be curated, handled, catalogued and cherished at all times. “Become data centric” Malcolm espoused and above all else “examine what you actually need” as “big IT and software vendors will merely try to sell you a system”. Reinforcing the importance of making sure you “bottom out exactly what you want, to get exactly what you need”. Crossrail have made enormous strides here particularly in terms of developing a meaningful and reliable Common Data Environment. The introduction and involvement of the PAS1192 legislation has been critical which has helped enormously too. As has having such a dedicated commitment to innovation and progress from the start (but more of this later).

Indeed as the management of data through all stages of the project is crucial, these processes were mapped out in advance such that each participant has clarity as to where they are receiving data from and where they are posting information to.

This is vital as Crossrail owns all of the project data and approaches like this significantly reduces information loss between contracts and project stages and gives greater visibility into the design and construction processes. The associated Crossrail Academy being set up with Bentley to both educate and inform contractors and other project participants in relation to data value and importance.[12]


Crossrail’s Sustainability Manager Dr Mike De Silva (from Bechtel Ltd) then gave an impassioned speech about the application of BREEAM credentials for the stations and CEEQUAL credentials for everything else. He then provided a wonderful overview of the sustainability aspirations already in place. Not least the construction of the Wallasea Island nature reserve using the excavated clay spoil from the tunnel boring machines (TBM’s). “The stations are also destinations in their own right” Mike said, and a huge effort had been made to ensure that each station had something of appeal in it’s own right. Not just shops and offices but gardens and galleries too, a wonderful touch. As for economic sustainability then it’s worth pointing out that over two thirds of the contracts so far have been issued to companies outside of London, and over 12000 people have been trained (including over 500 new apprentices overall).


As for innovation then Crossrail's approach cannot be ignored. Maggie Brown ably champions this initiative via the Innovate18 movement; a commitment of time and money by the main construction companies to look seriously into innovative improvements that can be made throughout the build of the project. Maggie made a good job of explaining the differences between true innovation and general business improvements and noted that the real key to success here had been meaningful dialogue from one party to the next. But what exactly does that mean?

If one project participant is having a specific issue then a team is in place to communicate this concern around the other projects and find a solution. Direct knowledge sharing from site to site. Alternatively, a new solution can be proposed by pooling all project expertise together in the monthly Tier 1 innovation meetings before developing a solution further. Resources are then in place to act on these initiatives and feasibility studies can be carried out. It’s almost like having a science lab on demand to research whatever you need, and this hands on approach to solving problems of course garnered buy-in quite easily. Although some clearly innovative practices did take the project team's longer to adopt than anticipated (red-lining on screen) whereas others enjoyed swifter traction (Bluetooth beacons, HD drones (Pix4D) as well as real-world AR solutions - largely through technologies from Daqri and Soluis).


Last then, but by no means least Neil Murray - an amply capable Project Manager - gave an impassioned talk about managing Mega-Projects in general, drawing on his hard won years of experience. The facets of “culture” were explored in depth as were the important attributes of having:

  • A clear vision right from the start, one that is upheld and frequently communicated too. Know your end game!
  • The right structure, and taking time to get the reporting right on day one (especially with the myriad stakeholders involved in a project like this).
  • A relentless improvement drive. Keeping project parties on the straight and narrow whilst using tools and incentives to promote peer to peer competition and the like.
  • A regimen to ensure that success is celebrated - especially by the people that earned it.

Neil’s contribution was considerate and heartfelt and concluded what was a spectacular day. Attendees learned a great deal, especially given the volume of coverage that the speakers presented. So much so that this write-up barely does it justice, but it does provide a thoughtful introduction to this wonderful project on the whole, I hope.

In the meantime we can all look forward to watching the project conclude shortly, relatively speaking. Details of the overall crossrail BIM Principles can be found here. As for other schemes such as Crossrail 2, HS2 and HS3 then rest assured we will be visiting these projects in far greater depth in the near future.

From BIM Journal Issue 03 – here (for all references see BIM Journal)

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