Client interview - Crossrail

Julian Bartlett


Crossrail CEO Andrew Wolstenholme provides some insight into what it takes to deliver an infrastructure mega-programme successfully

Crossrail is the UK’s – and Europe’s – biggest infrastructure project, made all the more interesting by its location. There are historic buildings above ground, archaeological treasures beneath and hundreds of residential, commercial and retail neighbours to consider. “The sheer scale of the engineering and logistics set an unprecedented challenge", says Andrew. 

Four elements for successful programme delivery

Though crucial, the engineering solution is but one piece in the puzzle. He identifies three other crucial elements which must be in place: a strong business case, funding, and political support.

“When you get those four components aligned, you have the best chance of getting an economically viable programme that people will support, that will be funded and that will deliver great outcomes,” he says.

Crossrail has an additional challenge which may not apply to every large public sector programme and that is its operational one. Andrew describes Crossrail as a hybrid line, timetabled on the surface and operating as a mass transit metro in the central section.

“We have to operate across different boundaries and deliver the assets to different infrastructure managers and asset owners,” he says. “The challenge is being able to deliver the frequency, volume and reliability across new, old and existing infrastructure.”

  • £14.8 billion project cost
  • 40 construction sites
  • £42 billion economic benefit to UK from Crossrail
  • 2500 employed on Crossrail programme

The importance of listening 

If the number, complexity and interdependency of Crossrail’s engineering challenges are mind-boggling, try thinking about the volume and range of organisations and individuals involved in this programme. From the small supplier in the North East of England to HM Treasury; concerned local resident to international design firm; local politician to national rail operator.

“You need a huge bandwidth to be able to listen and communicate,” says Andrew. “It’s a big leadership role. I have to be professionally competent at understanding the risks ahead, a good communicator, a politician, and a diplomat.”

Being a good leader

Being a good leader on a programme like Crossrail requires someone who has the ability to get into the detail – but who usually restrains themselves from doing it – says Andrew. “My style of leadership is to give people clear accountability and boundaries, to allow everyone to make their own decisions, which also means they will make their own mistakes at times,” he says. “That requires deep dives to make sure people are doing their jobs. It’s a balancing act: if you get too involved in the detail, people switch off. If you are never interested in the detail, you lose control.”

The job of assembling the long and diverse supply chain that feeds Crossrail requires a common cause. “You need to create a framework, and within it a set of common objectives and a set of incentives that hold people together,” says Andrew. “It’s also about generating a culture and with it, a strong set of values.”

Sitting behind the Moving London Forward mission are five values: safety, inspiration, collaboration, integrity, and respect. The importance of these values is reinforced with monthly and annual awards which link to them. “The values are clues as to how we expect people to behave,” says Andrew. “They straddle organisational boundaries. We will only be successful if we work across contract boundaries through collaboration. You cannot demand that, but if the culture is strong people will deliver extraordinary results.”

So far, so good

Andrew’s message certainly seems to be getting across. A November 2013 survey of the 2,500-strong core Crossrail team had an impressive 93 percent response rate with 97 percent saying they understood the Crossrail vision and 95 percent saying they were committed to the programme. Andrew comes back to listening again. “You have to listen very hard, to know how the team feel about their work. Leaders always have to be good listeners.”