London’s Crossrail is one of the largest engineering projects ever undertaken. Scheduled to open in 2018, it is a new 118-kilometre civil construction project including 21 kilometres of twin-bore tunnels running east-west under London, augmenting the existing underground system with 40 new or totally re-engineered stations.

The project will immediately increase capacity on the London rail network by 10 per cent and use new rolling stock of much greater capacity than existing underground carriages. Major interchanges are planned for Central London at Paddington and Tottenham Court Road.

Due to achieve unprecedented success in keeping to the project schedule and to its original budget, the UK Government has identified Crossrail 2 as a ‘priority’ project and has provided funding to develop the north-south line, planned to be constructed in the 2020s.

Delivering transport projects of this scale has historically meant that problems are greatly magnified, with resultant cost blowouts on similar projects averaging 144 per cent. But two years from opening, Crossrail is on time and on budget. How have they managed this impressive feat?

A key reason is that Crossrail is being built twice. It’s being built digitally in a virtual environment using the latest generation software from Bentley Systems, which support the industry’s building information modelling (BIM) and asset lifecycle information management (ALIM) standards and processes, and then it’s being built a second time physically.

BIM methodologies are supported by software, not driven by them. For Crossrail, BIM methodologies are so much more than 3D modelling. They include whole of life information management, capturing the intelligence created at the design phase, and storing it in an open standards database so the information can easily be shared and repurposed through construction and into operations and maintenance to reduce the whole of life costs of Crossrail.

Crossrail’s collaborative approach to BIM methodologies is not focused purely on CAD information. All information about the project is standardised, tagged, and stored in a SQL database, so that relevant information within it may be handed over to the operators upon commissioning of the infrastructure. That means the project’s construction and operation are fully integrated in terms of their information management. The Smart ICT implemented at Crossrail manages the engineering and asset information throughout the project. It provides a complete, federated view of the information made available through a common data environment to all approved stakeholders. Intelligence is not locked away in some proprietary CAD model or stored in multiple disconnected information stores.

Crossrail is leading the world in demonstrating the value of collaborative BIM methodologies to realise greater efficiency and cost effectiveness in best practice project delivery and asset lifecycle information management. Its success is testimony to how BIM methodologies have changed the way large infrastructure projects are designed and delivered.

Crossrail was first proposed in the 1974 London Rail study, but it was not finally approved until 2007, during the global financial crisis (GFC). At that time, the man who was to become the chief executive of Crossrail, Andrew Wolstenholme, wrote a paper called Never Waste a Good Crisis, echoing Winston Churchill’s use of that phrase.

In that paper, he evaluated the delivery of infrastructure in the UK, noting how things hadn’t really improved over a 15-to-20-year period. Wolstenholme argued that the way that governments procured projects was often an inhibitor to innovation because of the competition it created between contractors and subcontractors, and creation of islands of information. He used the financial disciplines imposed by the GFC to argue for a better way of doing things.

In Crossrail, we have evidence that applying proactive information management through collaborative BIM methodologies greatly improves the process of building and delivering infrastructure. Crossrail is a phenomenal project, but what’s really interesting is how they have pulled everything together.

So what lessons can Australia learn? One lesson is that if you want to stick to budget, do not try to hurry things. History shows us that trying to do a five-year project in four years means it will take six years and cost 44 per cent more. Crossrail told the UK government early on that if it were given an extra year to deliver the project, it could reduce the cost by GBP 1 billion. That is what has happened – the completion date was changed from 2017 to 2018, and the original budget has not been exceeded.

Secondly, infrastructure owners need to own. Crossrail mandated file formats they would accept and the data standards to be followed. In addition, the supply chain was informed that they would use Crossrail’s project collaboration platform (ProjectWise), that all data would be stored in Crossrail’s common data environment (AssetWise), and that data ownership would remain with Crossrail. This gave Crossrail a way to manage information from the conceptual design into the construction phase, right through to operations and maintenance. By using a trusted “single source of truth” approach to data management, only the most appropriate version of models, drawings and documentation were used by all parties. This reduced risks, minimised rework, improved safety, and enabled effective change and configuration management.

There is a reluctance in Australia to do that. Owners say it would upset the supply chain. Organisations are happy to implement a single CRM, financial, or HR system, and are happy to stand their ground on that because they see the value of interoperability and consistency. Yet when it comes to avoiding cost blow outs on a multibillion dollar infrastructure investment, the same criteria doesn’t appear to apply.

In too many Australian infrastructure projects, people are simply not talking the same language, metaphorically or systematically. On the owner side, there is uncontrolled use of disparate and incompatible applications with different file formats and no formal process, resulting in conflicts that lead to errors throughout design and construction. By avoiding rework onsite, Crossrail has managed to keep this megaproject on budget.

Thirdly, as the pioneer of BIM methodologies beyond 3D modelling in Europe, Crossrail recognised the need to educate the supply chain. Together with Bentley Systems, Crossrail set up the UK’s first BIM Advancement Academy to encourage the delivery of best practice throughout the project supply chain with its unique focus on people, process, and technology.

The BIM Advancement Academy offers a curriculum and sessions that are curtailed to any organization’s specific project. In regard to the Crossrail project, contractors get hands-on learning on the latest software, best practices, and processes used at Crossrail. This offers its supply chain a unique advantage of working in a simulated Crossrail environment so they learn detailed technical knowledge about the project, processes, and systems.

Connecting all the different disciplines is a challenge. The appetite to do it in Australia’s engineering community is huge – maybe it just needs some direction and leadership to assist them.