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 267.

    258.Tio Terry
    encourage young school leavers in to Engineering insted of Media Studys or the like. I would suggest a rebate system against Uni Tuition Fees such that a First wipes out the debt, a 2-1 75% of the debt etc._________

    Surely that would just encourage people to take easier degrees. How about scrapping fees for "in demand" but undersubscribed subjects?

  • rate this

    Comment number 266.

    Sad fact is this country has a good history of enginering such that we are no longer impressed by such things - we just expect them. And if they fail to impress us then we don't respect them.It's a little like medicin, a few years ago we would have been shocked by the things that can be done but now they are expected.

  • rate this

    Comment number 265.

    #263. penguin337

    "Engineers will be supplied by cut price markets from overseas"

    The UK has had a good few decades of home grown engineers.
    Of youngsters being encouraged by their fathers to do tech things.

    This is now drawing to a close since the fathers are not into engineering and the media is putting up celebs as role models.

    It's what Britain deserves. What a waste of potential talent.

  • rate this

    Comment number 264.

    "You'll never see a British company like Bombardier"

    Quite. Bombardier is Canadian.

  • rate this

    Comment number 263.

    This country needs Engineers. The government needs to accept that and decide how it is going to encourage young school leavers in to Engineering...

    The government isn't interested

    Engineers will be supplied by cut price markets from overseas


  • rate this

    Comment number 262.

    How sad that our finest graduates in engineering must go abroad because of the massive power of the environmentalist lobbyists. I suppose they will only be happy once spiders have taken over the UK and all humans forced to move elsewhere. I doubt that these selfish individuals care a jot for the lives of the ordinary people of the UK.

  • rate this

    Comment number 261.

    Thatcher decided the future lay in banking.

    The rest is history.

  • rate this

    Comment number 260.

    The Golden Age of Engineering has been and gone and has been sold off

    Sums it up
    The government doesn't help either, awarding rolling stock contracts for major projects to foreign firms??? what???
    You'll never see a British company like Bombardier getting a French or German rail contract. Ever.

    Read and weep

  • rate this

    Comment number 259.

    What, Britain good at something? ...quick slap a few taxes on it!

  • rate this

    Comment number 258.

    This country needs Engineers. The government needs to accept that and decide how it is going to encourage young school leavers in to Engineering insted of Media Studys or the like. I would suggest a rebate system against Uni Tuition Fees such that a First wipes out the debt, a 2-1 75% of the debt etc. That way the government get's it's Engineers and the Students can see an advantage in qualifying.

  • rate this

    Comment number 257.

    It's a golden age for Brit's not Britannia. The engineering feats achieved in Dubai or France by British engineer's, far outweigh's what Britain has built in the last fifteen years. British nationalism by BBC, Tory government and everyone who's jumping on the 'Oh we so great' bandwagon is quickly becoming a massive joke 'get real'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 256.

    When the ICE is running campaigns because people don't 'get' engineering, the housing market is still recovering and build spending is at an all time low I feel it is inaccurate to say we are in an engineering golden age. Realistically I think we are looking at a bronze age that has a long long way to go (and many cultural changes) before we can even consider talking about gold again.

  • rate this

    Comment number 255.

    Why am I commenting 12 hours after this article was posted? Because, like almost all of the folks who got 1sts in engineering/ science a decade ago, I'm living and working abroad. Sad. Especially considering we skilled expats are outnumbered 100 times over by media studies and psychology living and NOT working at home.

  • rate this

    Comment number 254.

    Eddy from Waring
    I'd say your comment is a clear sign of either ignorance or inexperience.

    A person who uses their ingenuity to solve a problem of how to machine a part is an engineer. An understanding of manufacturing/fabrication is as vital as calculus. Don't assume a degree is so much better.

    By your standards you need to have a degree in English to say you're a writer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 253.


    Take a look back at the world at the time of the industrial revolution and compare with now. We have advanced a great deal and that's down to the work of engineers and scientists working silently in the background. Social networks and the hype around Apple is just popular culture that happens to be in the public eye.

  • rate this

    Comment number 252.

    Go to Germany; just use your eyes to see the range of engineering projects undertaken and the quality of its infrastructure; talk to people to learn how rigorous the German education system is, and how respected a degree in engineering is. I'm off to Freiburg soon, apparently the greenest and most energy-efficient city in Germany, and presumably years (decades?) ahead of anywhere in the UK.

  • rate this

    Comment number 251.

    Engineering in the UK doesn't have a good image, and the engineering profession isn't entirely blameless. A lack of public engagement doesn't help the profession, nor does being seen as the boffins in the ivory tower or code monkeys behind a screen. Engineering needs to be seen as a high status and interesting profession or our industry is going to dry up and the only way to do that is outreach.

  • rate this

    Comment number 250.

    "We all have golden memories of the summer of 2012"

    Really? My memory is that we were 3rd in the irrelevant hop skip and jump tables but 28th in the crucial global math league.

    Engineering requires math not running about in a field or being stuck in front of a TV.

    Until we get our priorities right other nations will carry on taking our share of whatever is going.

  • rate this

    Comment number 249.

    The way I see it is that the Engineering profession suffers from a lack of publicity, not low pay.

    Approximate average Engineering salaries:
    Graduate (starting) = 25K,
    UK average = 35K.
    Chief Engineer/Technical Specialist = 50K
    Add an extra 10K if you work for a London consultancy or in Oil & Gas.

    How is this 'badly paid'?

    You can't compare all professions to those in The City...

  • rate this

    Comment number 248.

    I'm a 2nd year civil engineering student. Numerous times I have had to explain to people what a civil engineer does; with the majority thinking all they do is fix cars, washing machines etc.
    There should be a national goverment run scheme introducing young people to different work places to help them find work experience and give them a taste of a real career


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