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
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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 247.


    CDM = Construction, Design & Management regulations. It is legislation which ensures, in short, that all design and management of the design & construction process is safe. This usually means companies have to keep records to show that they were competent and had taken steps to detect mistakes, in case there is an accident or failure of some sort with the design/build.

  • rate this

    Comment number 246.

    Stand by your beds, I'm still here. Just seen your rejoinder, bangers64.
    Another post, another misconception. Who told you you had to be bright to be a Nuc Eng? I knew some right dorks. Wouldn't trust them to sit the right way round on a toilet. It's worrying, I agree.

    Anyway, it's late and retired Nuclear Engineers need their sleep as much as dustmen do.

  • rate this

    Comment number 245.

    I've worked on a few of the most recent engineering feats in and around London; Swiss Re, Heathrow, Wembley, London Eye, BP-1... The problem is, a lot of the steelwork for these was fabricated in Holland.

  • rate this

    Comment number 244.

    Brunel was a genius, as Mozart was to music, he was to engineering... No engineer today will ever be his equal !_______________

    Engineers and musical prodigies aren't comparable. Brunel was as much a businessman / entrepeneur as he was an engineer. The difference today is that individual engineers don't have that sort of power (or wealth), they are just small cogs in companies.

  • rate this

    Comment number 243.

    Boris island next?

  • rate this

    Comment number 242.

    You rascals* are keeping me up. I'm looking at you Anonymouse. What the blazes* is CDM. Does it apply to the Chocolate Industry. The last time I heard of anything like that, it was an award you got for eating Cadbury's Dairy Milk.
    I'm off to bed before I split my sides.
    * these words have been modified from the original AngloSaxon to please the Puritan operating the levers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 241.

    The golden days of engineering are over already for most of the world, it seems. Does anyone remember the good old days, when "space age" technology was used to put man on the moon and send new exciting forms of aircraft into the air?

    Now, most of our innovation and engineering is going into how to keep you connected to twitter, facebook, and myspace (I'm looking at you, Apple).

  • rate this

    Comment number 240.

    235.Eddy from Waring
    I have the highest regard for skilled craftspeople and technicians but having an engineering-related skill does not make them engineers.
    I don't understand why the title 'Engineer' was adopted in the first place. 'Technician' or 'Mechanic' etc. are perfectly respectable.

  • rate this

    Comment number 239.

    #225 Semisatanic

    With that grammar and spelling I'm guessing your 27 years were in selling beefburgers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 238.

    @236. Gravy-train spotter

    I guess it was but IF you were bright enough to have been a nuclear eng then you would understand that not all with cash are bad or in it only for themselves, however personally I think that the chances of you having ever been a nuclear engineer are at best slim to anorexic

  • rate this

    Comment number 237.

    My first impression is that very little engineering is actually done, with the majority of people's days filled with paperwork

    You're just in the wrong company, there are design jobs out there. Of course there will always be paperwork, all companies need to demonstrate they are complying with relevant regulations such as CDM.

  • rate this

    Comment number 236.

    Hey bangers64, I guess that was a shot at me. Listen pal, it's got nothing to do with class. Check out my spelling and English-I'm right up there with the very best.

    And you though it was about Engineering, did you? You make my point for me. It's about money my friend, and nothing else. And the only sad thing is the fact that you don't understand that.

  • rate this

    Comment number 235.

    " cut and craft steel etc into a precise product is an engineering skill..."


    It certainly is. I have the highest regard for skilled craftspeople and technicians, but having an engineering-related skill does not make them engineers, any more than being able to play an instrument guarantees its player to be a composer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 234.

    Brunel was a genius, as Mozart was to music, he was to engineering. His achievements are astounding. No engineer today will ever be his equal !

  • rate this

    Comment number 233.

    I always get annoyed when I see these articles. I live in Widnes and we have been waiting 8 years for a second bridge to be built across the Mersey. When the one small dual carriageway bridge gets jammed its a 30 miles round journey to the nearest river crossing. Merseyside always get overlooked when infrastructure improvement get mentioned. Anyone remember the eco-friendly barrage...

  • rate this

    Comment number 232.

    "OK engineers, get building"

    Okay nimbies, what do you want built and where?

  • rate this

    Comment number 231.

    Is Britain experiencing a golden age of engineering?

    Not yet but....

    Britain risks running out of energy generating capacity in the winter of 2015-16, according to the energy regulator Ofgem.

    OK engineers, get building (all you need is the go ahead from a government and plenty of £££££), good luck!

  • rate this

    Comment number 230.

    Stuff the political ideologies, what most people need from their government, at all levels, is that the lights stay on and the toilets keep emptying, not very glamorous or much of an election slogan maybe, but you could turn off your power and mains water and try it if you like. And which profession actually delivers such services ???

  • rate this

    Comment number 229.

    Hmm, I thought this was about engineering yet the same old names manage to bring in to it the same jaded class-war comments, sad

  • rate this

    Comment number 228.

    Wilson, remember him? , had a selective employment tax, SET. In an attempt to redress the City balance.

    USDAW were used to get it withdrawn.

    The rest is history.
    There has never been an attempt to curtail the toxic City since.


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