Is Britain experiencing a golden age of engineering?

Olympic stadium

Evan Davis has been climbing bridges and tunnelling underground investigating Britain's creaking infrastructure and offers a personal view on why we may be about to embark on a new age of epic engineering projects.

We all have golden memories of the summer of 2012 - Jubilee street parties and triumphs for Team GB.

But my favourite memento is in front of me as I write: a ball of London clay. It is a reminder of one of my highlights - a morning on board Phyllis.

Phyllis is one of the tunnel boring machines for Crossrail and one of the most extraordinary characters I met visiting some of the most exciting infrastructure in Britain.

Crossrail is the new railway which will run from West to East right across London. It is the biggest engineering project in Europe - and Phyllis herself is not exactly dainty.

She is 150 metres long, and weighs 1,000 tonnes.

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Evan Davis
  • Watch the first part of Evan Davis' series Built in Britain on Sunday 7th October on BBC Two at 20:00 BST
  • Or catch up again on BBC iPlayer via the link (UK only)
  • Part two of Built in Britain will be broadcast on Sunday 14th October on BBC Two

When I joined her while filming a BBC documentary, she was burrowing under Paddington heading towards Farringdon, staffed by a team of around 20 tunnellers.

It is hot, hard and time-consuming work - the first trains are not due to run until 2018.

Crossrail is a prime example of infrastructure. It is a rather deadly word, but I think it is exciting stuff, the civil engineering which makes Britain tick - the bridges, tunnels, power and water networks, which bind us together.

And it does not have to be epic engineering - it is also the pipes under your road.

The mighty Phyllis is also a perfect example of why we need infrastructure. It is about providing space for us to grow in the long term.

"Crossrail is a good example of putting in 10% more transport infrastructure to give you that lift, to give you that extra horizon of capacity for the future," said Andrew Wolstenholme, Crossrail's Chief Executive.

And that's exactly what infrastructure is for - giving us capacity for the future.

Whether it is finding ways to funnel more water to the thirsty South East of England or developing better broadband delivery to cope with the ways we're increasingly working and playing online, we need engineering to adapt to the ways we are changing.

Crossrail construction site, January 2012 Crossrail will link Berkshire and Buckinghamshire via London with Essex and Kent

Think of it as future-proofing Britain. And that will not come cheap.

The Oxford economist Professor Dieter Helm told me it would cost around £500 billion of public and private money to pull off the work we're already committed to.

Knowing what to build and where is far from easy in a changing world - and we will undoubtedly make mistakes. That is in the very nature of infrastructure.

But Dieter Helm believes we shouldn't use that as an excuse for inaction.

"If we just stick our heads in the sand and do nothing then it isn't going to be a pretty sight going forward and the British economy is not going to be in a fit state to take on all those other countries, which are confronting these problems," Helm said.

Now undoubtedly, we face some very British challenges when it comes to infrastructure.

We rightly cherish our back yards and green spaces, and we'll defend them passionately when projects are announced. We live in a democracy, and we like to debate these things, often for many years.

Start Quote

It is a rather deadly word, but I think it is exciting stuff, the civil engineering which makes Britain tick - the bridges, tunnels, power and water networks, which bind us together.”

End Quote Evan Davis on infrastructure

And historically, the British have always been rather wary of grand engineering projects - perhaps understandably, given that many of them have been delivered late and over budget.

Yet there are grounds for optimism.

Before the Olympic Games began I explored a side of the Olympic Park you did not see this summer - the extraordinary network of tunnels 30 metres beneath it.

These tunnels allowed the removal of 52 huge pylons which previously crossed the Olympic site - and the electricity cables to be buried underground.

The tunnels are just one small but fascinating bit of the Olympic infrastructure that underpinned the success of the games, and it was proof that we can pull off those big projects when we put our mind to it.

Sir John Armitt, the Chairman of the Olympic Delivery Authority, explained why it worked so well.

"The thing about an Olympics is you have to finish it on time. There's a fixed end date. Second thing, you really want political consensus and we've had political consensus.

"Third thing, you can't be held up by planning. We were given planning powers. So that helped very considerably. You have to have a sensible budget, and we were given a sensible budget by Treasury," he said.

Evan Davis Evan visited the vast network of new National Grid power tunnels under London

Now those are conditions which others can only dream of - on other major projects deadlines often slip, politicians often can't achieve consensus, and the planning process takes years.

But the Olympics has crystallised a view that we're better placed than ever to pull off the kind of engineering we need.

In fact, we have been getting better at it for some time - many in the industry would see High Speed 1, the fast line from the Channel Tunnel to London's St Pancras station which was completed in 2007, as a key turning point.

Britain has a wonderful infrastructure heritage.

"We probably have the greatest heritage in the world, in terms of inspirational individuals," says architect Lord Foster.

"Look at Brunel, he created tunnels, bridges, ports, ships. I mean the breadth of that ambition, we should be creating in that spirit."

Our Victorian predecessors built the infrastructure we still rely on today like our train lines and our sewers and for years we've continued to export those skills.

But we have often been tentative about applying them at home.

But what I have seen has showed me that we are now bringing those skills home - on projects from the new £1.5bn Forth Bridge, to the National Grid's power tunnels under London.

The summer of 2012 taught us that we could afford to believe in ourselves a bit more, to be a bit more ambitious as a nation. It is a lesson we are learning in infrastructure, too.



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  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    #80 "Wind up radios useful in this age of DAB radios? In the 3rd world perhaps ?"

    I have 3 wind-up radios, but only one DAB receiver. DAB is useless due to its massive power demands. If I want digital feeds, I use a USB stick transmitter to my analogue radios, including the Freeplays.

    But I can take a wind-up radio anywhere, 1st, 2nd, or 3rd world. No plug or batteries required. Awesome.

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.


    "...The iPhone isn't something we should be proud of. A rounded rectangle isn't design or engineering...."


    Oh it's the SHAPE is it?

    Whatever you think of its users, the internet, mobile phone network, and the engineering, compressed into such a small space, makes such devices and their support system about the most complex achievement of mankind yet.

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    Im a uk civil engineer, and can see that our power & waste management all need to be extensively developed in the next 10 years. However, with government (local & national) unwilling to release land and budget for these works, the UK is falling behind other nations. Our golden decade is yet to come, it will happen when there is a political will to develop our nation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    I'll not go over the already well trodden ground of the misuse of the term engineer. My issue is the London centric nature of these Great British projects. The political bias maybe towards London but the greater number of the GB population live elsewhere and where a project is put in place for the good of the country as a whole the London bias kicks in to try to stop it (yes I'm talking about HS2)

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    Building infrastructure is important but the UK needs exportable products if it is balance its economy. Start by reducing the tax on manufacturing companies. Then fully fund science, maths and engineering degrees including a grant for costs of living. We might also fund A level students that study these subjects.
    I use the term Professional Engineer, i.e. a Chartered Engineer.

  • Comment number 82.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    "...The machinist is an engineeer.
    The fitter is an engineer...."


    No they are not.

    They are wrongly so-called in the UK and this devalues the very demanding profession.

    A person who designs microchips, spacecraft, power stations, chemical plants, complex buldings, infrastructure etc. is an engineer, and so recognised in Germany, France, Japan, China, Russia etc.

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    Dyson and Bayliss merely applied previously known applications of technology to suit their commercial needs.

    Bagless technology was around for many years industrially.

    Ditto wind up dynamos.

    Patents appear to be useful to some people.
    But are they useful to humanity?

    Bagless vacuum cleaners still end up in landfills.

    Wind up radios useful in this age of DAB radios?

    In the 3rd world perhaps ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    Britain has many capable engineers but has rarely the political capability to make best use of their skills.

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    The machinist is an engineeer.
    The fitter is an engineer.
    The "person" who calculates the loads on buildings is an engineer.

    There are loads of jobs which are "all" engineers but they do not all have the same kudos

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    "I am me" comments on the use of engineer in English to denote just about anyone with a screwdriver. There is one thing we could do but don't. Many, if not most, engineers with PhDs don't use the title "Dr" even in a professional context; it seems to be a piece of inverted snobbery. Our German colleagues have no such false modesty. This is in our hands if you have the Dr title - use it!

  • Comment number 76.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    #61, Jenny: "Have you ever come across an engineer with a knighthood ?"

    We don't call them engineers if they're famous. We call them "industrial designers" (e.g. Sir James Dyson) or some other term which disguises the nasty grubby lower status term of "engineer". On the same theme - Trevor Baylis OBE gets called an inventor. Me, I consider wind-up radios to be an engineering achievement.

  • Comment number 74.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    The problem starts with our culture which makes it acceptable, even funny, to be "bad at Maths". So only the geeks & the nerds keep going with it and the sciences at higher level, whilst everyone else laughs at us for caring about them. Result: no respect, poor salaries, too few engineers & scientists. Such a shame. I know I'm not the only engineering graduate who switched rapidly to IT.

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    "12.Soapbox-Why isn't engineer a protected title?"
    There was an e-petition circulating to propose protecting the title, not sure it's doing.
    On a side note, I spotted in Motorcycle News that some young engineers have begun designing motorbike to race at the IoM TT to promote engineering and try to change the perception of it. Think they were called moto project hudd, need more projects like this!

  • Comment number 71.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    63. Boris Roach

    Spot on!

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    Looks like I had to answer my own question.

    After a little digging, geddit? , I found it was a German company that designed the Cross rail tunnel boring machines.

    Good old wikipedia. What would we do without it?

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    "Have you ever come across an engineer with a knighthood ?"

    Hard to think of recent ones. In the 30's there were the great railway locomotive engineers like Stanier and Gresley.

    Yet people like Dr Lyn Evans ("Evans the Atom") who was project director of the greatest scientific experiment ever go virtually unrecognised. He might have been had he been an entertainer or athlete.


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