Why does Britain struggle to build power plants?

A power station we did manage to build: Hinckley Point C. Image: Getty.

Much of Britain’s infrastructure is long past its sell-by date. This is partly down to ineffective financing, a lack of investment, and a government preference for fancy megaprojects over boring-but-crucial things like the energy grid.

History shows, however, that there is another, simpler reason: the neglect of project management, namely, the planning and construction of infrastructure projects. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the UK’s pitiful record with power stations.

Just look at Hinkley Point C. In its desire to avoid British consumers subsidising construction, and its belief that the private sector could simply build a nuclear power plant, the government has effectively handed over project management responsibilities and oversight to French state energy firm EDF. This means it now has little say in or control over any construction problems, the cost of which EDF will recoup through a very generous fixed price for the electricity the plant generates. Under the present arrangement, the British government cannot do much about the fact its flagship nuclear project is already £1.5bn over budget and a year behind schedule.

Failure to ensure that power plants are built on time and on budget goes back much further. In fact, long lead times, engineering problems, cost overruns, and construction delays have been problems in the UK since the early 1960s. A 1963 select committee report on the electricity industry pointed out that it took five years for a station to be commissioned in the UK, compared to two-and-a-half years in the US and just 13 months in Japan. A few years later, the National Board for Prices and Income found that incomplete power stations were costing the taxpayer around £30m a year in annual interest payments alone, roughly £345m in today’s money.

Nuclear power plants were by far the worse. In the mid-1960s, the UK decided to build a series of plants using a British-designed advanced gas cooled reactor (AGR) that had never been built on a commercial scale. Construction was hampered by engineering problems, however. For example, Dungeness B station in Kent, the first AGR station, started construction in 1965 and was meant to be completed within five years. But the station wasn’t connected to the grid until 1983, and didn’t start commercial operation until 1985, 15 years behind schedule.

Berkeley nuclear power station in Gloucestershire, under construction in the late 1950s. Image: Ben Brooksbank/creative commons.

As early as 1969, the Wilson Committee, which was set up to examine the causes of these delays, pointed to inefficient management. Project managers responsible for overseeing construction were either incompetent or had little incentive to speed things up, and the committee recommended more authority should be exerted over them. Its suggestion was echoed that same year by the select committee on science and technology, which argued that inadequate attention on site had led to many breakdowns of power station generators.

The problem was the government did not take much heed of these recommendations. Records held at The National Archives from this period show there was little urgency among civil servants or politicians to rectify the situation. Nuclear energy was considered crucial to Britain’s energy security and industrial strategy, but much less importance was placed on ensuring that the nuclear plants were built on time. Roy Mason, minister of power in the late 60s, went so far as to obstruct the construction of a nuclear power plant to appease the National Union of Mineworkers. In fact, there seemed little realisation within government that a key to successful infrastructure project lay in efficient project management – and the the ability to construct on budget and on time.

The ConversationHinkley shows that this same tendency to overlook the importance of project management still exists today. It’s just one aspect of infrastructure policy, of course. But until the government starts making project management more of a priority there is no guarantee the UK will get its infrastructure right. Funds and financing are important – but what actually happens on construction sites is equally, if not even more, crucial.

Tae Hoon Kim is a researcher in energy politics at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Everything you ever wanted to know about the Seoul Metro System but were too afraid to ask

Gwanghwamoon subway station on line 5 in Seoul, 2010. Image: Getty.

Seoul’s metro system carries 7m passengers a day across 1,000 miles of track. The system is as much a regional commuter railway as an urban subway system. Without technically leaving the network, one can travel from Asan over 50 miles to the south of central Seoul, all the way up to the North Korean border 20 miles north of the city.

Fares are incredibly low for a developed country. A basic fare of 1,250 won (about £1) will allow you to travel 10km; it’s only an extra 100 won (about 7p) to travel every additional 5km on most lines.

The trains are reasonably quick: maximum speeds of 62mph and average operating speeds of around 20mph make them comparable to London Underground. But the trains are much more spacious, air conditioned and have wi-fi access. Every station also has protective fences, between platform and track, to prevent suicides and accidents.

The network

The  service has a complex system of ownership and operation. The Seoul Metro Company (owned by Seoul City council) operates lines 5-8 on its own, but lines 1-4 are operated jointly with Korail, the state-owned national rail company. Meanwhile, Line 9 is operated jointly between Trans-Dev (a French company which operates many buses in northern England) and RATP (The Parisian version of TfL).

Then there’s Neotrans, owned by the Korean conglomerate Doosan, which owns and operates the driverless Sinbundang line. The Incheon city government, which borders Seoul to the west, owns and operates Incheon Line 1 and Line 2.

The Airport Express was originally built and owned by a corporation jointly owned by 11 large Korean firms, but is now mostly owned by Korail. The Uijeongbu light railway is currently being taken over by the Uijeongbu city council (that one’s north of Seoul) after the operating company went bankrupt. And the Everline people mover is operated by a joint venture owned by Bombardier and a variety of Korean companies.

Seoul’s subway map. Click to expand. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The rest of the lines are operated by the national rail operator Korail. The fare structure is either identical or very similar for all of these lines. All buses and trains in the region are accessible with a T-money card, similar to London’s Oyster card. Fares are collected centrally and then distributed back to operators based on levels of usage.


The Korean government spends around £27bn on transport every year: that works out at 10 per cent more per person than the British government spends.  The Seoul subway’s annual loss of around £200m is covered by this budget.

The main reason the loss is much lower than TfL’s £458m is that, despite Seoul’s lower fares, it also has much lower maintenance costs. The oldest line, Line 1 is only 44 years old.

Higher levels of automation and lower crime rates also mean there are fewer staff. Workers pay is also lower: a newly qualified driver will be paid around £27,000 a year compared to £49,000 in London.

New infrastructure is paid for by central government. However, investment in the capital does not cause the same regional rivalries as it does in the UK for a variety of reasons. Firstly, investment is not so heavily concentrated in the capital. Five other cities have subways; the second city of Busan has an extensive five-line network.

What’s more, while investment is still skewed towards Seoul, it’s a much bigger city than London, and South Korea is physically a much smaller country than the UK (about the size of Scotland and Wales combined). Some 40 per cent of the national population lives on the Seoul network – and everyone else who lives on the mainland can be in Seoul within 3 hours.

Finally, politically the biggest divide in South Korea is between the south-west and the south-east (the recently ousted President Park Geun-Hye won just 11 per cent of the vote in the south west, while winning 69 per cent in the south-east). Seoul is seen as neutral territory.  


A driverless train on the Shinbundang Line. Image: Wikicommons.

The system is far from perfect. Seoul’s network is highly radial. It’s incredibly cheap and easy to travel from outer lying areas to the centre, and around the centre itself. But travelling from one of Seoul’s satellite cities to another by public transport is often difficult. A journey from central Goyang (population: 1m) to central Incheon (population: 3m) is around 30 minutes by car. By public transport, it takes around 2 hours. There is no real equivalent of the London Overground.

There is also a lack of fast commuter services. The four-track Seoul Line 1 offers express services to Incheon and Cheonan, and some commuter towns south of the city are covered by intercity services. But most large cities of hundreds of thousands of people within commuting distance (places comparable to Reading or Milton Keynes) are reliant on the subway network, and do not have a fast rail link that takes commuters directly to the city centre.

This is changing however with the construction of a system modelled on the Paris RER and London’s Crossrail. The GTX will operate at maximum speed of 110Mph. The first line (of three planned) is scheduled to open in 2023, and will extend from the new town of Ilsan on the North Korean border to the new town of Dongtan about 25km south of the city centre.

The system will stop much less regularly than Crossrail or the RER resulting in drastic cuts in journey times. For example, the time from llsan to Gangnam (of Gangnam Style fame) will be cut from around 1hr30 to just 17 minutes. When the three-line network is complete most of the major cities in the region will have a direct fast link to Seoul Station, the focal point of the GTX as well as the national rail network. A very good public transport network is going to get even better.