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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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 167.

    The "Draughtsmen" of today sit at PCs all day, then hire a robot to build whatever is on the screen. That's "Engineering"?

    I don't think you realise how silly that sounds. Brunel would have loved the benefits of CAD (+CFD + CSA)/CAM .

    Do you make a new pen every time you write a new letter?

    Computers are to engineers what ovens are to bakers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 166.

    38. ExpatKS - We need to stop all Arts funding and pour the money into massive Engineering & Science projects inc infrastructure.

    Don't be so fast: the technology used to implement the road deck of the Millau Viaduct in France was inspired by the engineer's 'earlier life' in the fashion industry and his knowledge of the sewing machine.

  • rate this

    Comment number 165.

    I graduated from a good Engineering school in July, and have just started on the graduate scheme of a major employer. My first impression is that very little engineering is actually done, with the majority of people's days filled with paperwork.

    To say I'm disappointed would be an understatement.

  • rate this

    Comment number 164.

    149. p pav

    But why call yourself an engineer? The title must be protected for the sake of our economy....
    Because if they engineered something they are the engineer. If you want protectionism stick "Chartered" on the front of it. 3/4 Years at uni is just a formality for some.
    I agree it shouldn't be given to anyone but some people deserve the title for their ingenuity.

  • rate this

    Comment number 163.

    Does anyone really believe that major infrastructure projects will be performed by UK firms. The contracts will go to foreign multinationals. The projects will run late, be over budget, poor quality and the UK tax payer will foot the bill. After years of neglect, we do not have the skills for such work. The only UK people likely to profit are greedy bankers, management consultants and lawyers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 162.

    Phyllis, the central figure in this story of 'British engineering prowess' and its renaissance, is one of six tunnelling machines to be built in Germany, by Herrenknecht AG. Even though, with the experience gained on the channel tunnel, politicians talked of an emerging English Tunnelling Industry, here we are borrowing money pay the Germans to make it for us.

  • rate this

    Comment number 161.

    The Golden Age of Engineering has been and gone and has been sold off to whoever can give the biggest backhander.
    The Industrial Revolution 1750-1850 saw the greatest engineering feats ever to grace British Industry. Without those feats of ingenuity what would we have today?
    The "Draughtsmen" of today sit at PCs all day, then hire a robot to build whatever is on the screen. That's "Engineering"?

  • rate this

    Comment number 160.

    p pav

    As opposed to an informal degree then ?

    Don't take things out of context. Maybe the word formal has confused you.
    There are people who engineer products and systems who didn't have the advantage of 3 years of uni education but can still design and construct to apply their maths and science to the real world.

    I've employed both grads and non-grad.

  • rate this

    Comment number 159.

    8 Minutes ago
    149. p pav
    You shouldn't need a formal degree to be able to promote your ingenuity.

    But why call yourself an engineer? The title must be protected for the sake of our economy. We need to attract the brightest students to study engineering at proper universities offering approved degrees.

  • rate this

    Comment number 158.

    Perhaps if Imperial College London (one of the finest engineering schools in the world) didn't let so many foreign students (over 50% are non-UK born) in then we would have more able engineers than the handful of brilliant people we have working for the F1 teams & Qinetic.

  • rate this

    Comment number 157.

    I'm a Mechanical Engineer though thesedays utilise management skills more than technical. Nonetheless, I still love the purity of great engineering, be it a waste treatment plant or Olympic stadium.
    The demise of our breed is, in part, due to the fact that we are poor at self promotion. Accountants, lawyers and politicians are more adept at ascending the greasy pole.

  • rate this

    Comment number 156.

    @140. Eddy from Waring

    So a business employing engineers creates wealth but an established firm mas producing goods does not?

    Absolute gibberish

  • rate this

    Comment number 155.

    Another important issue is that at a certain point almost all engineers in this country are given a choice - earn more by moving into management or remain working as an engineer and find your salary and career progression almost completely stagnate. At this point some very important skills that have been built up over many years are lost to the engineering sector.

  • rate this

    Comment number 154.

    Politicians are arts graduates who have no enthusiasm for creativity. Politicians distrust advice from engineers because they suspect bias i.e. they stand to profit. Solution: use unbiased non-engineers to appraise proposals i.e. accountants who know the cost of everything and the value of nothing! Engineers become subservient.

  • rate this

    Comment number 153.

    Brings back memories of TV programmes like The Great Egg Race". Come on BBC, let's see more of the same.

  • rate this

    Comment number 152.

    I was born in 1967 by the late 70s we were being warned of energy problems ahead we have the talent and had the money what did we do worry about squirrels and badgers only one way for us and its nuclear power time for action not worrying about furry little creatures

  • rate this

    Comment number 151.

    @ 41 I am Me

    I assume your talking about France. I assure you i worked there at an engineering company and they are some the most misreavle people to work with in Europe. France offers nothing to anyone,let alone engineers!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 150.

    149. p pav
    You shouldn't need a formal degree to be able to promote your ingenuity.

    As opposed to an informal degree then ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 149.

    12. Soapbox
    So why isn't the term 'engineer' a protected title?
    "Only last night I spotted a HE course advert in my local paper that used the word "Engineer". The course was actually for a car mechanic.

    That's the problem...."

    Tell that to Sir Henry Royce who only had an apprenticeship.

    You shouldn't need a formal degree to be able to promote your ingenuity.

  • rate this

    Comment number 148.

    Is Britain experiencing a golden age of engineering?
    In a word.................. NO


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