Judging the Success of Megaprojects

by Jul 30, 2013Smart Cities

Christian Wolmar

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport and is the author of a series of books on railway history, the latest of which is The Great Railway Revolution, a history of US railroads. His book on the history of the Transsiberian is due to be published in November. He also wrote a couple of books on rail privatisation On the Wrong Line, and Down the Tube, and one on the abuse scandal in children’s homes, Forgotten Children, all of which are available on Kindle and other e-book platforms. He is a frequent speaker at conferences and railway events, and regularly appears on TV and radio. He is seeking the Labour candidacy for the 2016 London mayoral election and his campaign website is at www.wolmarforlondon.co.uk.

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Megaprojects are invariably controversial. And they attract massive interest and, consequently, publicity, which means they are under constant scrutiny. Failures inevitably generate more attention than successes, and therefore schemes face an uphill task in gaining public acceptance and support. On the other hand, they are loved by politicians. While, because of the long time frame, those giving the go ahead are unlikely to be the same as those who will ultimately cut the ribbon, megaprojects provide a lasting legacy, a genuine achievement for which politicians can claim the credit. The politicians can lay claim to having ‘achieved something’.


The UK is in the throes of controversy over what would be its biggest ever transport infrastructure project, the construction of a high speed railway line linking London with, first, Birmingham by 2026 and then Manchester and Leeds about seven years later. The cost for the near 300 miles of line, including rolling stock and contingencies, is estimated at £50bn. Supporters argue that the line is necessary in order to provide sufficient rail capacity in the face of growing demand and that it would help regenerate the Midlands and the North, helping to break down the North South divide. Opponents say that it is unnecessary given that extra rail capacity could be provided on conventional lines, and given that it is environmentally damaging and, crucially, far too expensive, which means it will sap money away from existing rail investment.

It is the way that the HS2 scheme was conceived that has stoked the controversy. It did not emerge from a wide ranging debate around the nation’s infrastructure needs but rather emerged as a political project supported by all three main parties without any debate about alternatives or Britain’s infrastructure needs. Moreover, its very name has stimulated confusion. While the line will, indeed, be high speed, its main stated purpose is to relieve capacity and this is the most important factor in garnering support for the scheme (rather than the fact that it will cut journey times on conventional rail lines by up to half). The debate has, therefore, been skewed with opponents focusing on the fact that speeding up journeys at such a high cost is unnecessary.

Moreover, the proponents of the scheme has scored something of an own goal by basing the value of the line on the time savings of those travelling on it. Opponents argue that these shorter journeys do not represent a benefit since most people, especially those travelling on business, now work on their laptops and other mobile devices while travelling on trains. It is only now, three years after the scheme was first announced by the Labour government, that any kind of serious assessment of the pros and cons is taking place in public and this has resulted in several leading politicians emerging as opponents.

These failings in assessing schemes are typical of megaprojects and were highlighted by the work of the OMEGA project of the Bartlett School of Planning at University College London, funded by the Volvo Research and Educational Foundations (VREF), into megaprojects. Professor Harry Dimitriou and his team focussed on ‘what constitutes a successful Mega Urban Transport Project?’,  seemingly simple but ultimately complex question.

Long Term Focus

Much analysis of the success or otherwise of projects focuses on rather short term considerations, especially on whether the scheme is likely to be ‘on time and on budget’. However, the research suggests that there should be a more holistic and systematic evaluation, both before the decision is made and after the scheme is completed. Megaprojects are major ‘agents of change’ leading to all kinds of effects, many of which cannot be predicted. An obvious example is the decision to allocate the 2012 Olympic Games to London.

This would never have happened had it not been for the construction of what was then called the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (now HS1) between the Channel Tunnel and St Pancras station in north London. Indeed, the Games would not have been won had it not been for a late change in the route of the line which originally would have gone under London in a tunnel from the south. Instead, following the intervention of Ove Arup and the support of the then environment secretary Michael (now Lord) Heseltine, the route was shifted to the north to go through Stratford in East London, an area ripe for redevelopment. The site then became the obvious choice for an Olympic bid as it was relatively centrally located and fantastically well served by rail, including domestic services on the high speed line.

There are numerous other examples. In Athens, when a new line was built, the operating company Attiko Metro SA transformed itself into a learning organisation, with the addition of highly qualified personnel and frequent interaction with consultants and therefore the project became an opportunity to acquire valuable new skills and knowledge. It does not always work. The use of a technologically-advanced signalling system on London’s Jubilee Line Extension proved impossible to implement in the time available and a more basic system, with a lower potential throughput of trains, had to be adopted temporarily, at great cost.


Judging a megaproject, too, involves timing. During construction, there are often delays and cost overruns which attract opposition on the ground and criticism in the media. Flash forward a few years, and all the hoo-ha is long forgotten, and all that remains is a heavily used social facility. The same Jubilee which endured almost a decade of difficulties with its signalling systems, is now seen as London’s most modern and efficient metro line, with its platform doors and modern trains.

Another stunning example, away from the transport field, is the British Library, the largest public building constructed in the UK during the 20th century. While it was being built, costs soared from £142m to three times that figure, took 14 years, double the original estimated time. Various factors, such as changes in design, political involvement, and protests about the original scheme, led to these delays. The scheme was constantly in the news during its conception and construction, with much criticism of the design, as well as the delays and the increases in costs. Yet, now, however, the library is widely accepted as an amazing success, a very heavily used treasure trove for students and researchers, who are all, thanks to the foresight of the architects, able to study at tables complete with electricity supply for their laptops which had not been invented when the library was first conceived.

For other megaprojects, however, the term White Elephant is never forgotten. The Humber Bridge, commissioned for naked political purposes in the mid-1960s to help the candidate of a Labour government which had a tiny majority in a crucial by election, is a beautiful but greatly underused structure that has never fulfilled predictions of its use.

The lesson of the research, therefore, in a nutshell, is that projects should be examined in as wide a context as possible, attempting to assess effects that may extend very widely. Crude analysis on immediate costs and benefits will not deliver the right outcomes. Then, after the event, the lessons must also encapsulate a very wide analysis so that the lessons can be learnt. The ‘on time, on budget’ calculations to which, actually, both protagonists and opponents resort according to whether it backs their argument, is simplistic and should be discarded in favour of a far more sophisticated approach and a long term perspective.

[colored_box variation=”silver” bgColor=”#eaeaea” textColor=”#333333″]This is partly based on an article by Christian Wolmar and Harry Dimitriou in the VREF’s publication, 10 years with the Future of Urban Transport (FUT) programme published in 2012. Mega Projects, executive summary, lessons for decision makers: an analysis of selected international large-scale transport infrastructure projects, published in December 2012, is available from the Bartlett School of Planning, University College London[/colored_box]


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