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.

Find out more

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 107.

    #102. britstudent

    Being an engineer isn't some thing that you can just retake at uni.
    You need the knack.

  • rate this

    Comment number 106.

    72. upper
    There was an e-petition circulating to propose protecting the title, not sure it's doing.

    It closed on the 12/09/12 with 27,896 signatures. Surely there are more engineers in the UK with an interest in this (e.g. current engineers, graduates, undergraduates). Perhaps it should be resubmitted, this time with better publicity.

  • rate this

    Comment number 105.

    Like engineer the word professional has been devalued by using it for jobs that require less training and academic ability. Perhaps engineers will only get their individuality back is if the ' Chartered' was became synonymous with Prof. or Dr. (as MD not philosophy) and Chartered engineer became Chen Jones or something catchy but recognisable to the public.

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    A seven barrage is a must, in order to help deal with the lack of investment in power generation, using a new type of turbine and generator, up to 8% to 9%+ of the UK’s national need for electrical energy could be produce, the former Welsh secretary Peter Hain has secured over 20 billion for this so what are we waiting for? golden age my unlees it's London based?

  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    An Engineer isnt a person with a screwdriver, They are a person who can use a multitude of tools and equipment along with modern technology to get the job done, ontime on budget and within time and cost constraints.

    The whole were "a great engineering nation" doesnt wash with me anymore. Most of our homegrown talent, learns their talent in the uk, then uses it abroad. Dont blame em.

  • rate this

    Comment number 102.

    My dads an engineer and given the chance I would probably have studied it at uni, just i'm not blind, everything is focused on finance in Britain and it is our biggest sector with the highest paid employees, hence i'm now studying finance at uni.

    If the government invested more in engineering and science and brought back our golden days I would gladly re-take uni and join the 'real economy'.

  • Comment number 101.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.

    #96. EBGB

    Have you considered how much energy it takes to manufacture your radios? How many sets do you have? And how many ears.

    When AA cells are exhausted they should be put back in your pocket - to be put in the recycle bin. And then recycled.

    Will wind up mechanisms be recycled?
    What is their total energy requirement?

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.

    People, including the BBC need to understand what an engineer is. We produce the best in the world. British engineers for example, are the backbone of the World's car industry. Your Mercs, BMWs, Porcshes , and Audis, are all have major input from British engineers. Same with Honda, Nissan, Toyota, Ford, GM.

    We're bloody good. People should be told how good.

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    16. Eddy from Waring
    "...So why isn't the term 'engineer' a protected title?..."
    Membership of the institutes such as the IEE, cannot be misrepresented and commands high regard.

    But most people don't have a clue about what a chartered engineer is. It's the term 'engineer' that's been devalued, through overuse by lower skilled professions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.


    Part 2 of 3 sorry guys and girls.

    A seven barrage is needed ASAP, to protect huge areas of land in Monmouth Gloucester, the city of Cardiff, Newport, Bristol, and the many area of the seven valley and wales and the south west. The RSPB does not want this to happen, because of habitat destruction, yet the semi-permanent flooding caused by sea level rise will do the same IDIOTS.

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    #89 "A westerner should consider putting some spare cells in his pocket."

    And dispose of them how, once exhausted?

    I dread to think how many batteries I'd have needed over the same 15-odd year period so far. It's not just the impact of creation that should be considered, it's the impact of disposal. Easy to overlook the first element of "reduce, re-use, recycle", but for me it's critical.

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    Hmmm engineer is a very vague term and in this instance needs to be better defined. However as is the norm, most of our industrial engineering contracts are now sent to overseas companies. So what was the question again?

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    The opening ceremony of 2012 showed us a glimpse of when the industrial revolution in Britain was at its height with Engineers at the forefront of innovative technology, unfortunately this is not the case today as this country has sold out to companies abroad, who invest and recognise the earning potential that all engineers bring to move forward.

    A nation of bookeepers, thats all we are.

  • Comment number 93.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    I love the fact that the BBC has chosen the Olympic park to showcase Britain’s engineering, but the whole tubular steal thing was started in the UK during the 90’s by the WRU for the rugby world cup in Wales. A real golden age of engineering, would be building a seven barrage to protect huge areas of Wales and the south west due to sea level rise because of global warming and to produce power

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    "Is Britain experiencing a golden age of engineering?"

    No. The Crossrail machines were built by Herrenknecht AG, HS1 trains were made in Japan, etc etc. 'Britain' has little engineering input past the planning stage.

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    I work in the construction industry and i can tell you the majority of our engineers are far from golden!
    The true engineers are the lower paid men on site who spend all day explaining why mathmatics doesn't always work with practicality then we have to teach them how to fix it!

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    #87. EBGB

    You missed my point.

    Is a wind up mechanism, complete with tempered spring, better on energy terms than some AA cells?

    How much energy does it take to make a wind up dynamo, perhaps with some rare earth magnets, compared to some AA cells?

    A westerner should consider putting some spare cells in his pocket.

    Hence my comment about third world use.
    Would that only prolong status quo?

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    No golden age - there's a shortage of engineering people because it doesn't pay. A young friend of mine did a year in engineering after uni then went to the City and finance because £14k a year with the prospect of not much increase was rubbish.
    The solution companies want is immigration - short term blinkered view, ruining the country for their own profits. Train people, solve your own problem.


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