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 147.
    New Labours dozy idea that everyone can go to 'uni'

    that was down to the previous Tory government essentially de-regulating university so almost any higher education establishment could be called university, new Lanour simply increased the percentage going a bit

  • rate this

    Comment number 146.

    If it's good news in civil engineering that's welcome.

    Now what about the other branches? Aeronautical, electronics, chemical process and materials, software (yes), optics, mechanical, and so on.

    The list is long, and I'm not sure where we stand on most of these.

  • rate this

    Comment number 145.

    A golden age of engineering: I hope it is.
    I am concerned though that the well engineered, high standards of old will not be present. My recent experience of engineering is that it is often compromised by commercial pressure to do it cheaper and quicker whilst the sales directors bonuses and cars get larger and larger.
    How many technical businesses have an engineering director these days?

  • rate this

    Comment number 144.

    I'm a civil engineering student in my third year, me and most of my friends have already decided that if we want to get exciting, well paid and well respected jobs in engineering it'd probably be wise to go abroad. A nation of NIMBYs has no want for civil engineers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 143.

    Rip off car mechanics and the man who fixes the Sky dish to the wall are regularly called engineers. Perhaps the industry would get the respect it deserves if we reserved the title for actual engineers.

    I hear engineers are paid far more and are received better abroad. I'm surprised we have any left here at all. Maybe it's because they aren't paid enough to be able to afford the move.

  • rate this

    Comment number 142.

    Engineers and scientists are treated very badly in this country. Show me the company where these people who innovate, create and generate real value get paid more than the accountants, HR or sales people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 141.


    if I was talking to you I would have said, generally a non targeted post, means it is aimed at the article at hand. Also I'm of the opinion the micro engineering is not something that can assist the economy on a macro scale, I'm happy for those benefiting from it, but I'm talking about the big things, like infrastructure that will help the general population.

  • rate this

    Comment number 140.

    Sweatshop owners, traders etc. do not create wealth.

    Engineers, as inventors and facilitators do that. The conception, design and production, of new things that people want, to which they assign value, and that better their lives, is what does it.

    Everything else is just mark-up.

  • rate this

    Comment number 139.

    The priority is to build new energy generating infrastructure, since it is the ever increasing cost of dwindling fossil fuels that has caused the recession overall. Developing a new nuclear industry based on liquid fluoride thorium reactors, plus an alternative Severn Barrage built from Minehead to Llantwit Major (same length of dam but twice the water volume passing) would be good ways forward.

  • rate this

    Comment number 138.

    @137. Sergoba

    If you are referring to my post (you do not make it clear))
    You need to understand that most exported engineering is not big, it is devices or machines of a type that simply will never make the news. As for civil engineering have a look at the nationality of those leading some of the biggest in the world - British

  • rate this

    Comment number 137.

    Are you kidding me?

    I can list a single grand engineering project in the last few years that hasn't been-
    a: over budget
    b: overly late
    c: a completely pointless sculpture devoted to the builders own ego.

    or a combination of all three. even the normal construction projects fit into one of the three categories, just a couple miles away is a stretch of road that has had roadworks for 3 years now.

  • rate this

    Comment number 136.

    @131. Sidney Monroe
    "Britain is no longer a manufacturing nation ........... What passes for manufacturing is in reality assembly of parts made abroad."

    Wrong or wrong to a large degree. Britten is known for expensive high end short run engineering where labour costs are not a big issue.

    Many American compaies come to the UK for this type of work as it is done better hear than in the US

  • rate this

    Comment number 135.

  • rate this

    Comment number 134.

    Without engineers we would all still be living in caves. Okay. Some of the creatives of this world might have caves with nice curtains, but they'd still be living in caves

    Why is such value viewed with such distain and poor wages?

  • rate this

    Comment number 133.

    Bruno Iksil aka the London Whale is a good example of what is wrong with western society.

    A very intelligent man who received a degree in engineering in 1991. Instead of using his engineering degree though he was seduced into investment banking, a choice which has made him a HUGE amount of money but with absolutely no benefit to wider society.

    As an engineer he could have achieved so much.

  • rate this

    Comment number 132.

    Golden Age?, not likely when we are governed by clowns. Wembly Stadium, Border Agency raided it how many times?. This country is run on the bottom line principle and until that changes and the bean counters kicked out forget it. Want to make money, go to the city juggle figures and don't worry the Gov will bail you out when it all goes pear-shaped.

  • rate this

    Comment number 131.

    It is as if the BBC has to justify the ridiculous hype over the Olympics. Britain is still an overcrowded, divided and techically bankrupt country, (thanks to the Labour Party) run by plastic politicians where we can't even keep Westminster Bridge tidy or stop the population growing by 500,000 immigrants a year. Perhaps we should get the basics right first.

  • rate this

    Comment number 130.

    "Is Britain experiencing a golden age of engineering?"

    About a 100 years ago with the likes of I.K.Brunel J.Watt Stevenson the answer would have been yes. But now ? No.
    Britain is no longer a manufacturing nation it's all shopping & banking. What passes for manufacturing is in reality assembly of parts made abroad. Germany has a "Mittlestand" & the reason they are in a better economic position.

  • rate this

    Comment number 129.

    In Germany, the U.S., the fart east and other places engineers have the same social status (and earnings) as doctors and lawyers. Not so in the UK. The company I used to work for was once run by engineers, who put more money up front to enable a proven product to be produced at low cost. Now run by accountants, they design, test, fail, redesign and produce later at more cost.

  • rate this

    Comment number 128.

    i am looking forward to the total industrialisation of every availble roof top in the uk,SOLAR POWERED,U CAN THEN STICK YOUR MANSION TAX AND NIGHT SHIFT WHERE they belong.
    and that compressed air resivoir idea i want one as well lets get going green ,save uk from ourselves ,never look a gift horse and poke a pig bring on the industrial revolution mark 2,


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