Elections and mega projects
DISCUSSION FORUM Elections and mega projects May 2010
Shani Wallis, TunnelTalk
A general election at any time is an exciting and apprehensive event but under the current economic and international circumstance, it is particularly edgy. As candidates of the different parties fight their corner, the great unknown of how the economy will fair in the immediate short term is something everyone must focus on but candidates say little about for fear of harming their chances.

Crossrail in jeopardy?

The UK general election today (May 6) for a new parliament and perhaps new leader of the country has everyone on tender hooks. The current Prime Minister and Labour Party leader, Gordon Brown, is recognised on the world stage as a decisive statesman, spearheading what many would agree was steering the global economy away from the brink of financial disaster. But it was on his, and his fellow state leader's, watch that the world's economic collapse happened and the citizens of the UK are likely to vote for a change. That change could have a new Conservative leader and Prime Minister in David Cameron or result in a hung Parliament with no party holding an outright majority and the Liberal Democrats, as the third party under leader Nick Clegg, holding the trump card, leading perhaps to another election in the Autumn.
But whichever party wins the UK election, dealing with a huge national budget deficit will await their arrival. Unlike Barack Obama, who campaigned successfully for President of the United States in November 2008, by promising to spend vast amounts of government money in public stimulus packages, the need that none of the current candidates in the UK are wanting to quantify is the amount of the cuts in public spending or where the axe might fall.

Concorde flew at the expense of Channel Tunnel

Large infrastructure ticket items are for sure in the firing line and there is none bigger in the UK than the Crossrail project under the city of London to link train services coming in from the west, directly through to networks heading north and southeast. With a price of £16 billion (or a stated outturn cost of £15.9 to be more precise), this is a drop in a deep ocean compared to the UK current debt of £848.5 billion or 59.9% of National GDP according to February 2010 figures of the Office of National Statistics. But they say 'every little helps', should that public funding commitment be cut, reduced or postponed.
Cancelling a major public infrastructure project in time of deep financial trouble is no strange thing to the UK. In 1975, the Labour Government of Harold Wilson, had to find public budget cuts and famously stopped in its track the 1974, entirely government funded, attempt of the Channel Tunnel, with TBM tunnelling underway from the UK side and more of the project advanced from the French side. One mega publicly funded project had to go and the Concorde supersonic airline project with France and the Polaris submarine project with the United States were sustained.
As it happens Channel Tunnel might have been the better one to keep. The Channel Tunnel was eventually give the go ahead again in 1984 but under the famous proviso that it be totally privately funded. Conservative Prime Minister at the time, Margaret Thatcher, famously stated in the House when the proposal came up (paraphrased) 'you can have it, if you can pay for it'. No public funding of any kind, not by the French or the British governments, not even government underwriting of the enormous amounts of private debt raised to pay for the fully privately funded undertaking to the now operating Channel Tunnel. This many agree was the beginning of Eurotunnel's well-charted financial difficulties and losses and to its current struggling existence.
Across in the United States another mega, publicly funded tunnelling project came to grief when the administration of the new President, Bill Clinton, came to power. While documents state that Clinton himself was in favour of continuing with the 54 mile (87km) accelerator ring of tunnels for a new generation of nuclear physics research, the members of a big Democratic majority in Congress pulled the plug on the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) project in Waxahachie, Texas and 17 deep access shafts and 14.6 miles (23.5km) of tunnels and lie excavated and abandoned in the flatlands of Texas.

Abandoned SSC surface building in Texas

So what is the likely fate of Crossrail under a new government in the UK?
As one engineer working for a major tunnelling consultancy firm in the UK said; "it is a project centred most definitely on London and the south east, and while many with a national outlook would agreed that it is needed for the future economic growth and wellbeing of the UK, it will be hard for new members of parliament from the outer regions to support such an enormous pouring of funds into the capital."
It is a certainty that whichever government moves into Downing Street on Firday (7 May), it will have to look at the financial cost of supporting Crossrail but another UK tunnelling industry player commented: "the cost to cancel it would be in the order of £2 billion I reckon, and there'd be forfeit of the €1 billion that London Mayor Boris Johnson had out of Europe in support of the project. Plus there is the amount of public and private funding that has already been spent, so the compensation would be a nightmare. Perhaps they may phase it into two major projects and/or look to combine a number of packages to reduce overall costs and interface costs between contractors etc."
Another opinion heard by TunnelTalk was that "it will be difficult to make major cost saving changes to the central underground and tunnelled section of the project. There might be easier changes and postponements to be made on the significant amount of surface works at either end of the central London section."
Crossrail itself has been quiet about the situation through the election, saying not much more than the public funding commitment and support of the project is secure and that work will go ahead as planned; but evidently not as scheduled. The first set of large project contracts for portal construction at Pudding Mill Lane and Royal Oak and the underground open-box station at Canary Wharf have been let and are progressing and proposal for the two major tunnelling contracts - C300 and C305 - have been submitted for a scheduled announcement by mid-2010. Perhaps we will learn more and get a first hand immediate update at the British Tunnelling Society Dinner tomorrow night (Friday, 7 May) when Crossrail's CEO, Rob Holden is programmed to address the gathered as the industry guest speaker.
TunnelTalk will report again early next week.
Crossrail moves ahead with enabling works - TunnelTalk, March 2010
Shortlist for Crossrail running tunnels - TunnelTalk, Dec 2010

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