The Heathrow Worldwide Distribution Centre (WHDC) is due to handle all international mail, replacing nine separate sorting centres. However, a series of technical glitches have seriously delayed the project and forced it to go over budget.
“It’s a disaster,” said Norman Candy, the London divisional representative for the CWU and member of the National Postal Executive.
Candy also warned about the danger of creating a single point of failure.
“Our main objection is they have concentrated on one centre. Our opposition was we felt it was very risky. One problem and the whole thing collapses. No modern business would do what they are doing,” he said.
The CWU was so concerned about the project it hired a team of business consultants to conduct a study on the proposal and they also warned of the inherent dangers of the project.
“As I understand it they’ve tied themselves into a bad deal with the technology,” Candy added.
The core technology, from supplier Siemens Dematic, has consistently failed performance tests, primarily because it mis-sorted mail and rejected items it failed to identify.
The centre should have begun accepting mail in January 2002. It is now scheduled to start accepting mail on a “phased” basis in October with a view to going fully live in late 2004.
The original budget of £150m for the centre and a further £156m for relocating staff from the nine regional centres, funding redundancies and changing the Royal Mail’s operations network has now risen to £367m.
A spokeswoman for Royal Mail denied the Siemens Dematic technology was flawed but admitted it had been forced to make “refinements” to the technology and further refinements were needed.
“There have been problems with the technology in acceptance testing but that doesn’t mean the technology isn’t working,” she said, adding that Royal Mail had “absolute” faith in the Siemens technology.
However, it was “not up to the standards we need to meet customer expectations”, she said.
The spokeswoman said the root of the problem lay in the complexity of the project.
“This is the most technically advanced mail centre in the world – or at least it will be when it’s finished,” she said. “There have been delays and we’re not making a secret of it. It’s not about a quick fix – this is about investing in the future.”