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Confidence boosters

As the pre-election vultures start circling above deputy prime minister John Prescott's super-ministry, he should by now be aware that civil engineers can make him look good. He dreams of a modern integrated transport system, he wants clean, environmentally friendly power generation, he is desperate for a solution to the nation's growing waste problem. We can deliver all these aspirations.

But as every civil engineer knows, it makes little odds how confident they are about their ability to deliver even the biggest and most complex infrastructure projects. Without the confidence of politicians and financiers, they will remain dreams.

Yet it is important not to simply accept that we are powerless to help the process along.

We are not.

More progress on the Channel Tunnel Rail Link project this week, for example, shows how, given the will, it is possible for the Government to resolve the political problems which dog such massive projects. What came first was an absolute conviction by engineers that the nation will benefit if the infrastructure is built. Once this is accepted by politicians, justifying the public investment gets much easier - however you choose to dress it up.

The deal struck by Prescott after the CTRL crisis of 1998 has effectively made it possible for the more complex second section into London to go ahead.

Again, a key factor seems to have been an absolute commitment from the engineering teams to hitting the cost and programme targets, thus giving investors and the Government the confidence to put money into the project.

Of course, while Railtrack's involvement at an early stage would boost confidence in section two, in reality the project will not fall apart if it pulls out.

CTRL is not financially out of the woods by any means, but there is a strong feeling that the difficult stages are passed.

But Prescott will certainly have to accept that Railtrack is right to highlight the financial pressure it is under right now when considering whether to take up its option to invest in section two. If pressure on the company to deliver continues to sap confidence in its engineering and management ability, the investment potential of the firm will rapidly dry up. Railtrack cannot afford that, nor can the Government or rail regulator Tom Winsor. Nor, crucially, can the civil engineering industry.

Like all the private sector firms investing in the nation's infrastructure, Railtrack needs, and probably deserves, political support. If Prescott is to hit his targets, his support and the confidence and cash it brings is needed for London's Underground, local authority transport schemes, and for developers of alternative energy sources and waste disposal systems.

So the civil engineering profession can sit back, wait for Government support and moan if it doesn't materialise. Or it can take more control over its destiny by helping to generate the kind of confidence that makes things happen. Arup and Maunsell have recently adopted this approach in putting together proposals for CrossRail (see page 8).

They are not just finding the solutions to the technical challenges but are working hard on the economic justification for the scheme as well as ensuring it can be delivered reliably on time and to budget.

Perhaps this will give Prescott something he can back with pride and confidence.

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