A project is a success if it achieves its objective and is completed on time and
within budget. By these criteria most major projects are failures, and those
involving transport infrastructures are the worst.
These facts are
indisputable, and there are logical reasons why this is
Pre-evaluation is flawed. In general an idea germinates, and
eventually reaches a point where a small organization is set up to evaluate its
practicality. Those appointed to the task are seldom critical; if they were they
would not be invited to the team.
So we now have a group of people who
want to approve the project. A group working on an idea for six months or a year
or more will develop a familiarity with and affinity for the project regardless
of the facts. They also have an interest in moving the project forward. If the
project is canned, they will feel that they will have wasted their time, if the
project proceeds the members of the evaluating team will have an excellent
chance of getting further remunerative work as consultants or employees. The
“sunk cost” fallacy applies here. A project has to be very bad to be turned down
by the evaluating group.
If one wants to prevent this happening one
should appoint two teams, the second one to acts as a “devil’s advocate.” Their
job would be to detect all the flaws. This never happens.
initial evaluation has been completed, and the decision is made to proceed, the
detailed planning is started, including a refinement of the cost estimate. At
this stage it is invariably found that the initial estimate was low, and the
cost estimate is raised – but not by enough to derail the project. Remember,
there are now more sunk costs to worry about.
It is almost certain that
during construction one or more of the suppliers will fail to deliver, causing
unplanned cost increases, but this contingency is not included in the
A more serious problem arises when circumstances dictate a
change in the specifications. Frequently the scope of a project is expanded,
allowing sub-contractors free reign to charge more than their original
If the over-runs were in the 10 percent to 20% range, this would
not be too bad, but in fact final costs are generally multiples of the original
budgets. The Sydney opera house, a magnificent building, deemed a great success,
cost 15 times the original estimate! At least projects like the famous opera
house and the Suez Canal, which also overran its estimate by a large multiple,
achieved their objectives – eventually.
Most serious are those projects
which in spite of the huge expenses involved, fail to achieve their
This generally happens because of technological change. People
always underestimate the long-term effects of technological
England is threaded by thousands of small canals which were built
at the beginning of the industrial revolution. They were rendered obsolete by
the development of railroads.
A recent example was the building of a
magnificent new airport for Montreal. It was deemed necessary because the
existing airport did not have sufficient capacity, and was close to residential
areas whose inhabitants objected to the noise. The new airport was located about
70 km from Montreal, and has now been mothballed.
The volume of
passengers did indeed increase, but the capacity of an airport is limited by its
runways, which can handle only so many planes per hour. By the time Mirabelle
airport was built, the newest planes were capable of carrying three times as
many passengers as the old ones, so the capacity of Dorval was tripled.
Furthermore the newer planes were much quieter so the residents were no longer
bothered by the noise.
Because large projects take many years to
evaluate, plan and execute, and are expected to provide benefits for many years
after, they are certain to be affected by technologic change. It is normal for
planners to include an environmental impact study in their evaluations, but
seldom will there be a technological impact study.
We don’t know what
technology will produce in 20 years, but we certainly know that the future will
Currently there are several large railway transportation
projects in the works. One in England and another in California involve
high-speed rail lines intended for passenger traffic. A third is proposed in
Israel for a line between Eilat and the center of the country. All are certain
In these cases the original estimated costs are already
escalating alarmingly. It is a sure bet that the escalation will continue, but
that is not why the projects will fail. Transportation technology is changing
radically and will likely make rail transport virtually obsolete for passenger
There are at least two disruptive processes that are occurring
today, one well under way, the other looming over the horizon. Others will
occur, but let’s deal with the “known unknowns”: things we know about, but whose
impact we cannot estimate.
Natural gas has become cheap because of new
extractive technology, and new discoveries. Use of NG as fuel for vehicles will
reduce costs and make road transport more competitive with rail.
of research projects are underway aimed at developing self-driving vehicles.
There’s a tendency to think this might be handy, but is otherwise unremarkable.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
The disruptive effect of this
change will be profound. It will have as big an effect on our lives as the
One effect it will have is increasing the capacity of our
highways. Road vehicles must maintain large gaps between them to allow for human
reaction time. A computer-controlled vehicle will react instantaneously, hence
highway vehicles will proceed safely at high speeds close together, or even
touching. Suddenly the capacity of our highways will be increased by a factor of
three to 10.
At present most people own private cars because the
alternatives are expensive, inconvenient or unavailable. The biggest factor in
taxi prices is the driver; a self-driving taxi will be cheap. Eventually private
ownership of cars will become obsolete.
This will increase the capacity
of our urban streets just as the computer-controlled vehicle expands the
capacity of our highways.
Imagine the procedure required to travel
inter-urban distances of a few hundred kilometers. Option A: get to the train
station, wait for the train, enter and find a seat. The train then whisks you at
high speed to your destined city, where again you must use inconvenient means to
reach your final destination.
Option B: call a taxi via your cell phone a
few minutes before you are ready to leave, step into it, punch in the address of
your destination, enter your payment code and relax. Your TP (transportation
pod) will do the rest.
It will take the quickest route to the highway,
where it will attach itself to a train of other TPs going to your destination
city, thus minimizing energy costs. On arrival it will exit the highway and drop
you off at your desired destination.
Meanwhile you have been sitting in
comfort, watching the movie you didn’t catch last night, or working on that
project that needed undisturbed concentration, or even angling your seat back
The Israeli rail project to Eilat is less ambitious than
the British or Californian ones, but is certainly doomed. Its justification is
to provide a passenger rail link to Eilat, and secondly to provide a land bridge
for cargo from the Far East to Europe; an alternative to the Suez Canal. This
flies in the face of current trends. Maritime transportation is very cheap and
has huge economies of scale. Already most oil is shipped in supertankers, too
large to pass through Suez, so they travel around Africa to Europe. Super-sized
freighters will carry containers on the same route.
A land bridge to
bypass Suez is already obsolete, and the passenger link is a non-starter. This
project should be dropped.
The author, a retired engineer, has worked in
Canada as a computer analyst and entrepreneur. Has lived in Israel since 1990,
is father of three, grandfather of 15 and great-grandfather of 10, all of whom
live in Israel.