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Major projects sponsorship: a must for complex rail and transit projects

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Effective project sponsors can help ensure that multimillion dollar rail and transit projects that are often seen as too big to fail don’t turn into a costly and frustrating debacle when public and private funds are at play.

Key points:

  • Project sponsors are dot connectors that can help steer and unblock bottlenecks on megaprojects
  • Sponsors help ensure that major projects deliver against their business case
  • CPCS helps transport organizations embrace project sponsorship; Ontario’s Metrolinx being one of them

Achieving better results with project sponsorship

The world’s most successful transportation organizations are embracing and prioritizing structured project sponsorship.

Sponsorship is a form of project governance and assurance where project champions are accountable for defining the requirements of the project and for ensuring a project delivers its expected benefits.

Project sponsors are usually members of senior management, either an individual or a group, who are committed to the project from beginning to delivery and beyond.

“The sponsor is responsible for making sure that the project achieves what it set out to achieve, even if it means having difficult conversations,” says Adrian Lightstone, Global Director of Major Projects at CPCS, a global management consultin firm specialized in transportation. 

He says a sponsor is a group or person you want on your project to ensure the business case accomplishes its intentions, ensure scope changes match project benefits, work closely with the project manager, participate in high-level project planning and coordinate with project stakeholders.

Without a sponsor, projects can underachieve

Adrian has seen his fair share and says when there is no sponsor seeing a rail or public transit project the whole way through, what gets delivered to the client at the end of the process can be very different from what they had intended upfront. This can cause frustration, waste public funds, and impact ridership.

“The typical way mass transportation projects get delivered,” he says, “they’re planned by one part of the organization, delivered by another, and then the keys get handed over to yet another part to operate it. It’s the changes and deviations that can happen along the way that lead transport projects to underachieve.” 

A project sponsor is different from a project manager who is responsible for project execution, such as the cost, quality, scope, time and schedule. 

“A project manager will be responsible for managing each of those pieces. Along the way the project sponsor will be responsible for saying, for example, are we deviating too far from the business case? If we give up this part of the project, will the project still achieve what it’s meant to achieve? Is there an alternative?”

Sponsors bust silos for benefit realization

Sponsors need to be able to see different parts of the project simultaneously and how they fit together, requiring good technical knowledge, independent thinking and a pragmatic approach. In a sense, they’re living bridges busting silos to avoid the dreaded lack of integration.

Throughout the lifespan of a project, the sponsors’ duties can go from a 30,000-foot bird view strategy, to doing technical spot checks and ensuring that the right conversations take place for shared understanding.

“Like a purposeful troublemaker, this critical role involves challenging different parts of the organization. This means sponsors need to be willing to speak up and have their voice heard so that all parties don’t sort out issues in silos, but rather collaboratively.”

CPCS provides sponsor services for clients such as Metrolinx, a Toronto-based agency of the Ontario government that plans, builds and operates public transportation.

When Phil Verster was appointed president and CEO of Metrolinx in 2017, he established a Sponsor Office within two months. The sponsorship concept comes from the UK, where Verster spent the 12 previous years managing train operations, infrastructure builds and infrastructure management for passenger rail systems.

The agency’s Sponsor Office consists of about 70 people, with a head sponsor and a sponsor for each major project. Each of those, depending on the size and complexity of the project, may have a team.

Project sponsor models vary

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to project sponsorship governance. It depends on the organization’s structure and business context.

In the case of Metrolinx, there are vertical sponsors that carry out the projects and horizontal sponsors who engage with stakeholders such as municipalities, Indigenous groups, and others connected to the projects. Some project sponsors develop tools and the templates so that everything is tracked and done consistently.

For example, take Ontario’s GO Expansion program that “will transform the GO rail network from a commuter service into an all-day, rapid system.” CPCS is working with the Metrolinx Sponsor Office through the development phase of the program. CPCS has individuals working on everything from station platform heights, to grade separation reviews, to overall operational readiness and system integration.

“We’ve also played the role of helping to define the tools and the processes that a sponsor office should employ. What do they need to think about? What kind of governance process should they use and advising how a sponsor office should look like on top of providing guidance and oversight of technical functions,” says Adrian.

CPCS has several people from the UK with technical backgrounds that span 25+ years and a range of sponsorship strengths, including Tim Cromack, Head of Sponsorship, Major Projects Unit at CPCS. Tim has been embedded in the Metrolinx sponsor office for the last four years and has played an important role in the development of the sponsor office from formalizing processes and codifying standard ways of working to support capital delivery.

CPCS helps transport organizations embrace sponsorship

How to persuade organizations to adopt the sponsorship model?

It’s not easy because sponsorship requires bold leadership and a long-term vision, which are difficult to get in today’s volatile environment. But Adrian says, more than ever, that transport organizations must rise to the occasion considering public scrutiny, social acceptability, and the need to deliver projects that must perform according to expectations.

“A major rail project often takes more than 10 years from initial concept to opening day. It’s easy to tell someone this is what a sponsor does, but people don’t always see immediate results from it.”

“You need to wait about 10 years as an organization to see that an effective Sponsor Office accomplishes what it’s meant to achieve. Before a project is planned, you need people who’ve been there and done it before to confidently come in and speak to the benefits of a sponsor office and a sponsor team for an organization to understand why they should embrace it.”

Our experts

Tim Cromack is a major project expert with more than 25 years of experience delivering and providing assurance over large capital and transformation programs across the transportation, financial services, and government sectors. He specializes in program management, program assurance, risk management and project sponsorship. Tim has worked in the Metrolinx Sponsor Office since 2019, and has sponsored various network-wide initiatives and capital projects, including Eglinton GO, Weston GO, Caledonia GO and Bloor GO TTC Connection.

Adrian Lightstone is a management consultant specialized in transportation. His expertise is unlocking major infrastructure projects for clients and has led several complex multidisciplinary transportation projects relating to regional transportation, intercity rail, transit, and freight.

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