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Comment

On the face of it, Geoconsult's continued protestations of innocence over the 1994 Heathrow Express collapse case look optimistic (see News this month).

Certainly the Health & Safety Executive thinks so.Last week its report in to what it describes as the 'worst civil engineering disaster in the last quarter century'is clear about the causes.It lends no weight to Geoconsult's claims that unforseen, and so far uninvestigated, ground conditions played a part.

As a learning tool, the reportis a great piece of work.It paints a picture of poor workmanship, poor design, poor engineering judgement and, at times, a sheer absence of common sense.

Every young engineer should read it and digest what can happen if the basics are forgotten, the risks are not appreciated and the mechanisms for checking and correcting errors are missing.

However, many observers agree that the report does not tell the whole story.It has an angle - there is spin - which comes from the HSE's need to secure a successful prosecution after this high-profile collapse.

As Geoconsult's QC Arthur Marriott points out: 'A legal case is not a proper foundation for a technical report. . . and this report is not a substitute for a full inquiry. The truth has two sides.'

His point is that the HSE's investigation concentrated on the facts needed to secure convictions and consequently misses the wider implications.

But the collapse also exposed a wider set of problems which are touched on in the report, especially flaws in BAA's procurement procedure and its subsequent supervision of the project.

BAA did not feature in the HSE prosecution.Arguably, it was easier to secure a conviction by highlighting poor quality design and construction than it would have been to convince a jury that inappropriate procurement had played a part.

So while Geoconsult's demands for a public inquiry are impractical - it has already taken six years to get the HSE report out - there is still a need to find a way of helping the industry gain a better understanding of the wider lessons.

Antony Oliver is deputy editor of NCE.

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