25 Aug 2023

Auckland's City Rail Link review finds lack of skilled workers for large-scale infrastructure projects

8:15 am on 25 August 2023
A platform view of the proposed Karangahape Road station (artist's impression)

An artist's impression of the platform of the proposed Karangahape Road station. Photo: Supplied

Auckland's City Rail Link project has exposed New Zealand's lack of expertise in delivering large scale, complex infrastructure projects and the risks which arise from that, a review has found.

The New Zealand Infrastructure Commission, Te Waihanga, which commissioned the review, said there were lessons to be learned from the country's biggest infrastructure investment to date.

Waihanga delivery general manager Blake Lepper said multi-billion-dollar projects were "complex, disruptive and can exceed a decade under construction".

"It's critical we learn as much as we can from this experience if projects of this scale are going to become a more substantive part of our total infrastructure investment," he said.

"There is no doubt the City Rail Link will be a tremendous asset for Auckland City, delivering significant travel time, safety and urban intensification benefits. However, it is projected to cost more than double what was estimated in 2015, with many billions more to be spent across the Auckland rail network in years to come to realise the full design capacity of the project."

The review - led by infrastructure experts Graeme Joyce and Peter Spies - recommended future business cases be reviewed when expectations, scope or costs for a project change.

Tunnel boring machine's breakthrough at City Rail Link’s Aotea Station in Auckland’s CBD.

Tunnel boring machine's breakthrough at City Rail Link's Aotea Station in Auckland's CBD in 2021. Photo: Supplied / City Rail Link

The reviewers queried why more than $1 billion of upgrades, essential to delivering the benefits of the project, were omitted from the business case altogether.

Lepper told Morning Report the country must reach a point where infrastructure budget blowouts and timeframe delays were not inevitable.

"I think that would be a real shame if people started to lose confidence in the timeframes and budgets that were being announced alongside these projects. I think that's why we're really focused on looking back at this point in time to see what could've been done differently and therefore what should be done in the future so that the public ultimately can have more confidence in what's being announced."

In particular with new major projects being promised ahead of the general elections, develop people with new skills would be key, he said.

"These kind of tunnelling projects into our major cities are just so much more complex and challenging than we've faced in the past, and as a result we're going to need people who can lead much bigger and more technical teams if they're going to be a success."

Some businesses have closed due to the disruption.

Some businesses have had to close due to the disruptions. Photo: RNZ / Luka Forman

The review includes 24 recommendations for future infrastructure projects, including stronger procurement planning, in light of the challenges involved in working with local and international contractors.

It also stressed the need to communicate with the community and businesses impacted by construction.

Lepper said one lesson particular to New Zealand was the shortage of people who were skilled and experienced with projects of this scale and complexity.

"For CRL this issue is illustrated by the way in which the governance and oversight of the project needed to continually evolve and develop 'workarounds' for the structures originally agreed. This was time consuming and created additional pressure on teams that needed to be focused on delivery," he said.

"A project of this type has never been completed in New Zealand. It is also the first large-scale integrated-transport-urban development project in New Zealand. If we want to get better at doing these types of projects, then we are going to have to get better at rolling this expertise from one project into the next and ensuring every project is set up better than those that came before."

The need to build the capability of major project leaders was a recommendation in the New Zealand Infrastructure Strategy released in 2022. Te Waihanga is working on a programme to address this.

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