Tracking Covid’s impact on UK’s biggest infrastructure projects: HS2 and Hinkley to Crossrail and Tideway

Posted on 23 March 2021

One year ago today (March 23), Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that the UK was to move into a full lockdown as the Covid-19 pandemic swept the nation.

With less than 24 hours notice it left contractors the mammoth task of closing down active construction sites as quickly and safely as possible.

Despite pleas for construction workers to be given “essential worker” status, the government ordered the shutdown of most sites leading to delays and cost overruns on projects big and small.

Lack of certainty over when the crisis would end made the planning and implementation of shutdowns all the more complex. Achieving safe closure with minimal notice only added to that challenge.

Most sites remained closed until June. After which Covid-related measures had to be implemented on site, such as social distancing, one-way walking systems and extra cleaning processes.

These extra measures both took time to implement and have also added time to some construction timelines.

Future planned projects have also suffered withCrossrail 2and theBakerloo Line Extensionboth mothballed as TfL coffers ran dry.

Most of the UK’s biggest infrastructure projects have in one way or another been hit by the impact of Covid restrictions, with Covid blamed for delaying progress at Hinkley Point C, Crossrail, Tideway and the A303 Stonehenge Tunnel.

Hinkley Point C

The cost of Hinkley Point C nuclear power station has risen by around £500M and its start date pushed back to June 2026 due to delays arising from the Covid-19 pandemic.

In January,EDF said it expected the Somerset project to cost up to £23bn compared with a 2019 estimate of a £22.5bn maximum.

The start of electricity generation from Unit One of the power station had been scheduled for the end of 2025, but work postponed last year at the height of the first lockdown has not yet been completed.

In a message to employees, Hinkley Point C managing director Stuart Crooks said: “Ten months after it began, we are still facing the full force of the pandemic.

“Even though experience has allowed us to increase numbers on site during the pandemic from below 2,000 to more than 5,000, social distancing requirements still limit the number of people we can safely have on site at any one time."

Crooks added that “a longer construction period also adds some cost — as does the reduced efficiency of operating a site for a long period under Covid-19 conditions”.

Crossrail

In August,Crossrail Ltd announced that it will need up to an additional £1.1bn to complete the central section of the London route.

The opening date of the Elizabeth Line has also been pushed back further and is now set for the first half of 2022 – althoughTfL commissioner Andy Byford has repeatedly called for the line to open at the back end of this year.

It comes after Crossrail’s board thrashed out a new timescale and cost for the project following Covid-19 delays and a downturn in productivity.

The cost increase is on top of the £2.15bn additional funding package which was given to Crossrail after it missed its original opening date of December 2018.

Alongside cost hikes on the Network Rail side of the project, the overall Crossrail scheme is now coming in above £19bn.

As revealed byNCE, the project also saw an increase in slips, trips and falls after sites were reopened as safety briefings switched to protecting against the spread of Covid– this has since been addressed.

Tideway

Covid-19 restrictions have added nine months and a further £233M to the completion date of the Thames Tideway supersewer project, according to a shareholder announcement revealed in August.

Project promoter Bazalgette Tunnel Limited, Thames Water’s development vehicle for the project, said that the project is now “likely to be completed in the first half of 2025” instead of the anticipated 2024 finish date.

Shareholders were also warned of rising costs with forecasts adding £233M to the previous cost estimates putting the overall cost of the project at £4.133bn.

In an investor report released a month earlier, Tideway revealed its “severe downside” forecast which outlined Covid-related extra costs could result in a cost rise of £900M.

The investor report did warn of a scenario in which the Covid-19 impact could drive up the final cost to £4.1bn. The report also outlined a second “worst-case” scenario that could see costs of the remaining work spiral by 24%, which translates to a total cost of £4.3bn.

Stonehenge Tunnel

TheA303 Stonehenge Tunnel scheme was finally given the go-aheadby transport secretary Grant Shapps in November.

Shapps granted a Development Consent Order (DCO) for the scheme, despite The Planning Inspectorate concluding that the scheme would have “adverse effects” for local roads, would cut off local communities and was a risk to the natural and historical landscape.

The government’s decision on the DCO application had already been delayed twice. The first delay was due to the impact of Covid-19 and the more recent delay was due to the discovery of “archaeological finds”.

Documents released by the Planning Inspectorate show that the delay on the decision means that the opening date for the Stonehenge Tunnel will be pushed back by a year.

Tracked changes in the Highways England documents show that the impact of the planning delays will push the start date for preliminary work on the Amesbury to Berwick Down scheme back from summer 2020 to spring 2021.

The main work will be also delayed by a year to October 2021 with the completion date also moving back by a year to 2027.

Heathrow Airport Expansion

The airport industry has felt the impact of Covid harder than most. Passenger numbers have fallen off a cliff and major expansion programmes have come grinding to a halt, withLondon City Airport bosses pausing its own expansion in the midst of construction.

At Heathrow, things are just as dire. Heathrow handled 22.1M passenger in 2020, compared with 80.9M in 2019 but it wasn’t just passenger flights that have been affected by the pandemic as cargo volumes passing through Heathrow also fell by 28%.

Work on Heathrow’s planned third runway had stopped prior to Covid due to a High Court judge ruling that the government failed to take into account climate change goals when giving the project the go-ahead.

That ruling has since been overturned in the Supreme Court. However, the financial situation – and continued uncertainty around passenger numbers – means the expansion programme remains on ice for the time being.

Despite this, Heathrow bosses continue to push the need for expansion and will no doubt revisit it once travel bans are lifted.

High Speed 2

In the midst of lockdown version one, the government gave the industry a massive boost by providing notice to proceed for phase one of HS2 between London and the Midlands.

It effectively paved the way for main construction, with progress of HS2 ramping up at the back end of last year.

Tunnellers are now preparing to launch at the foot of the Chilternsandwork is underway on the UK’s longest rail viaduct.

The second phase of the project, to take the line north to Crewe, has also been buoyed after receiving Royal Assent earlier this year.

What happens beyond Crewe remains to be seen with the government’s much-anticipated Integrated Rail Plan now delayed until after the local elections in May.

While the construction timeline for HS2 remains largely unchanged by Covid-19 for the time being, the project’s chief executiveMark Thurston admitted in May last year that HS2 stations and trains may be redesigned for post Covid-19 world.

The project has also been beset with construction complaints as work has ramped up.As revealed last week, more than 1,400 construction-related complaints were received last year, many of which relate to breaches of Covid-19 restrictions.

12 months since first Covid lockdown

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