TLDR; create an asset strategy from the old capital project, and set up a flexible portfolio of works to deliver the scope over time, via a series of stable increments that each return value in themselves. 

Lets consider a proposed, fully-automatic train line running from Growing Suburb into Big City. This new line was going to be delivered as a single project over a few years. But then Covid hit, the government saved lives, and they had to reign in spending for a while to regain balance. The project was paused indefinitely cancelled.

But the citizens of Growing Suburb still need to get into Big City, and demand on the existing transport network is back to pre-Covid levels. Pushing the commuters onto the roads is not the answer, creating more congestion in at least the city, if not also the roads that lead to it. So what could they do?

What might normally happen

The usual answer is to scale the project back, remove a bunch of its features and round off corners until it appears affordable, perhaps with bizarre compromises. Turn the unicorn into a lame donkey and claim success. With the project team seeing any backwards movement as a loss, they're not able to back options that politicians provide, and might be blind to compromises that could work. The sunk-cost fallacy kicks in, the project marches on spending money, and disappoints the investors (who no longer have money), the project team (who are starting to feel stressed about delivering anything resembling the project inside the ever-tightening expectations), and the public. Confidence is lost all round, and the project is arbitrarily reshaped or cancelled.

A wise person told me that the whole game of transport projects is to make them palatable. Just keep nibbling, ducking and diving until they stick. Because, for the vast majority of the world, once you build them, people will come: the transport network is why people move to an area. You really can't stuff up if you're adding capacity, routes and options to do business and get to work. He also pointed out that the whole of railway history is this way. The first London Underground projects were considerably imperfect and went to empty fields, but quickly people came, and over time the system evolved for everyone's benefit.

Instead, Incremental Upgrades

The problem is, when there's very little cash available, there's no room left for manoeuvre and these projects get cancelled, indefinitely paused, or turned into maintenance projects with grand names. In frugal times, at least, we need to be smarter. 

Growing Suburb didn't need to lose out. Had someone had the foresight, influence and communication skills, Growing Suburb's problems could have been solved using Incremental Upgrades.

A few smart people with the right skills set out a long term investment strategy for Growing Suburb. It sets out a series of small, affordable and complementary upgrades. They start with one today that serves both to provide the necessary short-term benefits, but also a flexible platform on which to build the others. And then, as time elapses, other incremental upgrades are added to the pipeline. Each upgrade is a contained, specific project that makes enhancements, and also returns smaller, immediate benefits, whilst laying foundations for future projects.

Growing Suburb's better option

Instead of abandoning the transport line, a strategic portfolio of projects are proposed.

The first project addresses the immediate needs of Growing Suburb by building a segregated busway on the identified corridor. It supplements this with simple stops and carparks. Enough green buses are bought to serve the community, and a reliable, traffic-free, accessible corridor sustainably ships commuters into and out of Big City to their conveniently parked cars in the suburbs.

Within a few years, the project has handed a working transport infrastructure on a reserved corridor into the city back to the state operator. Knowing that Growing Suburb is going to live up to its name, the state and the operator are ready for what's next.

The plan was to buy more buses. But, as demand has increased, the second project upgrades the stops, making them longer, and introduces a mixed fleet of trackless trams. These carry more people, alleviate some of the workload of the bus driver, and can run faster. This incremental upgrade increased capacity, cut journey times, and established a higher level of safety.

A recession landed, and for a decade, investment was paused. But the network was operating and continuing to return benefits.

Then investment resumed. The remaining buses were phased out as part of the beginning of whole fleet replacement for a second generation trackless tram. The station stops were upgraded to fully air-conditioned buildings, and some of the car parks were upgraded again. Much of this work was delivered via supplements to the maintenance activities.

A later investment installed a physical guide in the guideway, and rubber-tired metro trains were introduced using an on-train interlocking. Capacity was now on par with other metro services, and two other trackless corridors had been created in the city.


There are some huge benefits here. It's affordable: although larger, the investment is spread over time, and pays itself off progressively right from the outset.  But, there's also no big ribbon to cut, just people going to work comfortably and hopefully not really noticing - which is not good for politicians. The other advantages are that the pipeline becomes more sustainable and predictable, in turn that means industry can prepare itself for it, and help advise on the best route there without conflicting itself. And, knowledge and skills can be tailored towards the strategy across the board.

Instead of a big project with a fixed scope that can "just get on", and that hands a big delivery back to the public, projects now must be part of flexible thinking. Small enough not to incur too much commitmetted cost, and also flexible enough to survive the changes that the portfolio needs as it evolves. The consequence, of course, is that the portfolio can also survive the changes. The coordination and smaller size also allows effort to be spread out to  include existing maintainers, who are readily able to undertake inflight upgrades, but usually miss the budget for enhancements.

Also, the landscape of politics and project delivery isn't currently configured to support this. Relatively little effort is spent on network-level strategy (infrastructure projects are even announced without transport department involvement). That's not to say the expertise isn't there, it's there in numbers, across the industry. But it's time is spent supporting cases already made, refining modelled understanding for projects, to do sensitivity analysis etc. When it does do more, it often doesn't have a voice. The asset strategy that does exist is inside the maintenance space, has only an operational budget and a focus on keeping the system running.

And the voice that does exist, with a megaphone, is much further down the chain: in project delivery land. When you launch a project, it has one job. And when there are only a few, massive projects, you have a few, powerful, loud agencies focussed on very specific outcomes. A new dynamic would be needed, and some gaps filled in.

A tried and tested approach

London Underground pivoted to this model when subsidies and capital investment dried up in 2018, as part of other sweeping changes. The Deep Tube Upgrade Program, which sought to upgrade a third of the network to a new, fully driverless system with new trains, signalling and infrastructure, was suddenly reset. Out of the embers emerged a train-first strategy, with expensive but flexible trains that could accommodate a range of future options. Over time, the other assets will undergo incremental upgrades, with signalling being installed that enables future options rather than bakes them in.

Paris has done the same for decades. Line 14 demonstrated a driverless option that could then be retrofitted to other lines - and this was (relatively) easy, because their strategy included buying new trains that were compatible with the old, by leaving things like door spacing consistent to allow mixed operation over extended periods, and even building double-length platforms that will lay dormant until they are needed. Relatively expensive investments, but only a percentage on top of building the new stations anyway, and much cheaper than trying to extend them in service in a few decades.

And it's not just transport. If you google incremental upgrades, you'll find the big technology players and cloud service providers have long been using this strategy. In London Underground, the phrase "performing heart surgery on a tennis player during a match" is used to convey the challenge of upgrading operational infrastructure. But this applies too to the highly distributed and enormously complex cloud infrastructure around the world. With demand ever increasing, energy prices pressing down, and end of life coming around within half a decade, you can only marvel at the fact that you've really never noticed these upgrades that are continuously happening behind the scenes.

In summary

Whilst money isn't cheap, Australia, and probably many other places around the world, could benefit from turning to Incremental Upgrades for a while. It's not the most exciting idea, and it won't lead to the most exciting projects. But it's sensible, and so are the consequences.

Achieving it does require some strategy, as re-sequencing a large programme of works into smaller projects might require attention to detail, especially a focus on trade-offs. The delivery of the tactical projects becomes more important, both in timing and how they support each other - they become a portfolio of loosely coupled projects, which necessitates a subtly different skillset.

But, done correctly, incremental upgrades means affordability and incremental benefits. The asset is kept running, and with a little extra spend in Opex and smaller, more regular, more thoughtful Capex spends, you gain continual renewal, uplift, and benefits. The public also gains access to an operationally stable network.

Only the header image was generated or aided with AI.